Open letter to Anthony Teacher on slaying PPP

Dear Anthony,

First, let me say how much I like your blog and all the work you do on Research Bites

I write in reply to your post Is it time to SLAy PPP? which argues that my criticisms of the PPP approach to ELT methodology can be extended to any kind of explicit instruction. I’d like to argue that you fail to identify the root of the problem, viz.: the synthetic syllabus.

Here’s a brief summary of your argument, which I hope you think is fair:

  1. Learners are constrained in what they learn by the route of interlanguage development.
  2. Instruction cannot affect the route of interlanguage development in any significant way.
  3. If instruction has no role in language learning, then what’s the point of teaching? Instructed SLA seems like an oxymoron and discussions of both PPP and TBLT (Jordan’s preferred methodology) are rendered moot.
  4. Needs analysis can’t take account of learners’ developmentally readiness. Our knowledge about which aspects of language develop in a fixed order and why they do so is still too limited to make reliable pedagogical decisions.
  5. Therefore, the instructed SLA approach seems defeatist.
  6. But the effectiveness of instruction need not be as limited as the claims above suggest. While SLA research shows a firm order of development, we have learned that instruction can certainly impact it. Through understanding students wants and task needs, offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, working with cognitive load in mind, providing opportunities for recycling (all evidence-based principles), we can affect the route, speed, and level of language learning. With these principles in mind, both TBLT and PPP have their place.

Points 1 and 2 are fine, but let me include here Mura’s comment to your post. He gives a summary quoting VanPatten from his radio show:

Instruction makes a difference in the short-term (a week, 2 weeks, at most a month) but:

  • tests tend to measure explicit knowledge
  • long term (8-9 months, 1 year) gains disappear
  • sometimes instruction impedes acquisition, slows it down (3 studies only though)

Moving to the rest of the argument, I think it wrongly assumes that “providing the right instruction” depends on “pinpointing learners’ developmental readiness” for it. Interlanguage development moves through various stages, but it isn’t a linear process, and therefore it isn’t best helped by presenting and practicing bits of language IN ANY ORDER. You’re right to say that needs analysis of the usual type (What is the learner’s present level of proficiency as measured by grammar and vocabulary tests, competence in the 4 skills,  “can do” statements, and so on; Where does he/she wants to end up?) can’t pinpoint learners’ developmental readiness for this or that type of instruction, but you’re wrong to suppose that this is the only kind of needs analysis available (tasks as the unit of analysis is the alternative I’ll discuss later), and equally wrong to suppose that we have to identify the point where learners find themselves in their interlanguage development in order to provide efficient teaching.

The faulty argument stems, I suggest, from regarding English as an object of study, and supposing that the only practical way English as an L2 can be taught is by using some kind of synthetic syllabus, where the English language is divided up into hundreds of artificially separated pieces, and then taught through a process of presenting and practising the pieces in a pre-determined order. When their learning is framed by a synthetic syllabus, students are faced with the impossible job of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again, without even the benefit of having seen him before he got smashed to bits. The whole project is doomed to failure: regardless of how the language is cut up into bits, how those bits are categorised, organised and sequenced, and how they are presented and practiced, it won’t work, because students will only learn what they’re ready for. And trying to make sense of it by pinpointing each learner’s developmental readiness is a fool’s errand because there is no such point. The view of language learning which underpins any synthetic syllabus is the same as the view adopted by the CEFR and the Pearson’s Global Scale of English: it’s a linear, incremental, bit-by-bit “climbing the ladder” process involving the proceduralisation of declarative knowledge. SLA research tells us that language learning is nothing like this representation of it.

I find Point 6, which attempts to rescue your argument from its depressing conclusion in Point 5, too optimisitc, I’m afraid!  First, we can’t affect the route of language learning, and second, all the other good things you suggest – offering meaningful opportunities for language learning, explicit instruction, corrective feedback, opportunities for recycling, etc., – need a coherent framework which doesn’t clash with research findings. If they happen within the framework of a synthetic syllabus, provided by a General English coursebook for example, then they won’t work. As long as language teachers try to teach students the pre-prepared, pre-packaged stuff they or their bosses think makes up an attractive “course of English”, they’ll be forced to deal, one way or another, with their students’ inability to learn it, and they’ll never teach as well as they could if they took a different approach.  My (unoriginal) argument is that all ELT based on implementing a synthetic syllabus is fundamentally flawed and hugely inefficient.

An alternative to the kind of needs analysis you refer to is the kind Long (2015) refers to, where real-world tasks are used as the unit for needs analysis. The question informing the needs analysis is: What tasks do the students need to perform in the target language?  The tasks need to be clearly described, using either the ready-made job descriptions that exist in many sectors (including education, business, the professions, public administration, the military) or descriptions from what Long calls “linguistically naïve but work experienced informants”. From a task analysis, an analytical syllabus is designed, where target tasks are the source of pedagogic tasks, which themselves are defined as simpler versions of target tasks, not in language learning terms. This allows students’ real world needs, rather than teachers’ or coursebook writers’ ideas about English as an object of study, to guide the course, and it allows teachers to work with students in a way that respects the learners’ interlanguage development, while at the same time offering explicit instruction to help students with formal aspects of the language, vocabulary learning and so on. Note that TBLT as outlined here has nothing in common with the use of tasks in grammatical or functional or lexical syllabuses.

As you probably know, I’ve explained my objections to coursebook-driven ELT elsewhere,  and I’ve tried to answer those who defend it. If we accept SLA research findings, then we should reject the use of synthetic syllabuses as a way of organising ELT and explore alternatives, such as the TBLT outlined here, Dogme, content-based language teaching, and immersion courses, for example.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts; thanks for raising these important issues, Anthony, and keep up the good work.




Appendix 1: Steps in Long’s TBLT Syllabus Design. (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 224)

Appendix 2: Characteristics of tasks (Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT p. 233)


“Patrick”, the Common European Framework of Reference and Interlanguages

I’m afraid I don’t know who “Patrick” is, because his avatar gives no information about him, but whoever he is, he regularly leaves comments on Scott Thornbury’s blog. Most recently, Patrick has given his opinion on the CEFR and on research into interlanguages. On the former, in comments on P is for Predictions, he says he likes the CEFR and that its growing influence throughout the world is “a good thing”. Dismissing criticism of the CEFR, Patrick says:

Fulcher’s recently cited criticism doesn’t stand up to analysis – it does however demonstrate that either he hasn’t read or understood or used the CEFR, or that he’s more interested in distorting its message in the interests of marketing his new theory: he doesn’t even get the quotations right. Sadly this kind of shoddy scholarship seems to be widespread in TESOL academia.

He adds

Re the way it was devised, yes there have been critics .. , but if the choice is between the judgement of experienced teachers or the pseudo-science of some particular rating method then I’ll go with the former any day (there are so many rating methods to choose from anyway).

The following week, commenting on Scott’s blog I is for Idiolects Patrick says:

The way I see it Scott is that ‘interlanguage’ is one of the uglier of many unnecessary neologisms invented by academics, presumably to give them a sense that they are forging a profession: there are plenty of plain English alternatives.

Yes you can invoke it as a reason for accounting for the mismatch between teaching and learning/acquiring. But there are a thousand and one other potential reasons for the mismatch that have nothing to do with ‘interlanguage’.

But the main reason that I dislike it so much is that it is so tightly bound up with the notion that languages are learnt via mechanistic pre-programmed stages. The much-touted initial research on this was a travesty, both in terms of its design and its interpretation. And although these initial errors were highlighted and debated over an extended period of time, and refuted by subsequent research, the fact that they still persist in some quarters indicates that they are ideologically driven.

From memory, Rod Ellis gives a pretty even-handed account of this fiasco, and probably Norbert Schmitt too, but many of the academics writing in that particular field seem happy just to perpetuate unanalysed myth

Far be it from me to criticise anybody for expressing their views in a forthright way, but I’m afraid Patrick is talking so much baloney that his/her comments need a reply. It wouldn’t be polite for me to put my reply on Scott’s blog, hence this post.

Patrick has managed to get things completely back to front: it’s the CEFR which treats language learning as a mechanistic process where learners move along a series of stages in linear progression, and it’s the various hyptheses concerned with interlanguage development which insist that L2 learning, far from being linear, is, in fact, a process where lots of things are going on at the same time, and which exhibits plateaus, movement away from, not toward, the L2, and all sorts of U-shaped and zigzag trajectories.  Let’s take a look.

The CEFR Framework 

There are six levels in the CEF framework, from B1 to C2,  each associated with a set of descriptors.  At each level, a list of can-do statements describes what the learners can do, one example being what they can do when it comes to transactions to obtain goods and services:

So here we have the progression from ‘can’t-do-much’ to ‘can-do-it- all’ as described by a scale that is statistically determined, hierarchically structured, and linear. The assumed linearity of such scales is contradicted by research findings of SLA, including those on interlanguage development, which show that learners do not actually acquire language in this way. As Fulcher says:

The pedagogic notion of “climbing the CEFR ladder” is therefore naïve in the extreme (Westhoff 2007: 678), and so attempts to produce benchmark samples showing typical performance at different levels inevitably fall prey to the critique that the system merely states analytic truths (Lantolf and Frawley 1985: 339), which are both circular and reductive (Fulcher 2008: 170-171). 

Note here that I’m leaning on the work of Glenn Fulcher, who I’m sure would be upset to learn that he’s been accused of “shoddy scholarship” and of deliberately distorting the CEFR “message” in order to promote his own work.

Fulcher points out that the CEFR scales were made without any principled analysis of language use, and without reference to any explanation of how people learn an L2. The selection of descriptors by North were, as he admits (North, 1995), based soley on a theory of measurement, and it relied entirely on intuitive teacher judgments rather than any samples of learner performance. The CEFR scales are therefore “essentially a-theoretical’ (Fulcher 2003: 112), a critique which North and Schneider (1998: 242-243) accept.

The CEFR scales don’t relate to any specific communicative context, or provide any comprehensive description of communicative language ability. If we return to the description of transactions to obtain goods and services, we note that ‘goods’ and ‘services’ are grouped together, and thus no distinction is drawn between, for example, buying fish and chips and buying a new car, which are, of course, qualitatively different communicative transactions. McCarthy & Carter (1994: 63) demonstrate the problem with these two examples:

Customer: I’m interested in looking at a piece of cod, please.

Server: Yes madam, would you like to come and sit down.

Customer: A Ford Escort 1.6L please, blue.

Server: Right, £10,760, please.

The CEFR can thus be seen as an unstructured, incomprehensive list of things that language users might want to get done in a range of contexts. Any, or none, of these might be relevant to a particular testing situation, and any, or none, of them might be linked to any particular task types.

I’ll touch on one other bit of the framework: “transactions”, where the descriptors that are used at each scale level again rely on ‘can-do’ statements to define the levels. Davidson & Fulcher (2007) discuss a number of problems that arise from trying to use these descriptors, and I’ve chosen just two as illustrations:

  1. The descriptors mix participant roles within a single level. At A2, for example, the leaner can ‘ask for and provide’ goods and services’, implying that they would be able to function as a shopkeeper or travel agent, as well as a procurer of goods and services.
  2. The distinction between levels is not at all clear, often referring to a vague notion of ‘complexity’ of the transaction. For example, at level B1 learners can deal with ‘most situations, as well as ‘less routine’ situations. But there is no indication as to what kinds of ‘less routine’ situations a learner might not be able to deal with, and no definition of ‘less’, ‘more’ and ‘most’. A2 is characterized by ‘common’, ‘everyday’, ‘simple’, and ‘straightforward’ transactions, but the reader is left to infer what these presumably ‘more routine’ transactions might be.

I won’t attempt any proper critique of the CEFR here, but I hope that this evidence at least indicates that its weaknesses can’t be so breezily brushed aside as Patrick suggests. And  we should also note that most leading scholars of language assessment view the reification of the CEFR as both theoretically unjustified and damaging. To quote Fulcher (2008: 170) again:

It is a short step for policy makers, from “the standard required for level X” to “level X is the standard required for…”, a step, which has already been taken by immigration departments in a number of European countries.

Few, except Patrick, perhaps, would argue that the original CEFR framework has undergone an unfortunate process of reification, so that the CEFR scales have now assumed the role of constants which are used in the exercise of power.  Of course, this isn’t what Trim or North wanted, but we can’t, or at least we shouldn’t, deny that it’s happened.

As a final observation on Patrick’s remarks, Fulcher, far from misinterpreting “the CEFR message”, has more than once suggested that when the CEFR is seen as a heuristic model used at the practioner’s discretion (as Trim and North intended), it can become a useful tool in test construction. But the context of language use is critical, since it’s the context that limits the inferences drawn from test scores, and restricts the range of decisions to which the score might be relevant.

Fulcher makes the basic distinction between ‘measurement-driven’ and ‘performance-driven’ approaches to assessment. Measurement-driven approaches, like the CEFR, derive meaning from a scaling methodology which orders descriptors onto a single scale and relies on the opinion of judges as to the place of any descriptor on the scale.  In contrast, performance data-driven approaches are based on observations of language performance, and on generating descriptors that bear a direct relationship with the original observations of language use. Meaning is derived from the link between performance and description. As Fulcher says

“We argue that measurement-driven approaches generate impoverished descriptions of communication, while performance data-driven approaches have the potential to provide richer descriptions that offer sounder inferences from score meaning to performance in specified domains”.


Patrick’s comments on interlanguage research and its relevance to language teaching need less comment.

  1. He’s welcome to his harmless opinion that ‘interlanguage’ is an ugly unnecessary neologism invented by academics to bolster their confidence, although I wonder what “lots of plain English alternatives” he has in mind.
  2. Likewise, to suggest that there are a thousand and one other potential reasons for the mismatch between teaching and learning that have nothing to do with ‘interlanguage’ is to say nothing of interest, since nobody would suggest otherwise.

As to disliking the term so much because it implies that “languages are learnt via mechanistic pre-programmed stages”, the research on interlanguages implies no such thing. In a post on the subject, I quote Doughty and Long (2003)

There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development, such as the well known four-stage sequence for ESL negation (Pica, 1983; Schumann, 1979), the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses (Doughty, 1991; Eckman, Bell, & Nelson, 1988; Gass, 1982), and sequences in many other grammatical domains in a variety of L2s (Johnston, 1985, 1997). The sequences are impervious to instruction, in the sense that it is impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages altogether (e.g., R. Ellis, 1989; Lightbown, 1983). Acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability (Pienemann, 1984).

Interlanguage research is on-going and under constant critical review (see Han & Tarone, 2016). As the above quote indicates, it is not accurate to say that Rod Ellis regards all the research as a “fiasco”, and the suggestion that “many of the academics writing in that particular field seem happy just to perpetuate unanalysed myth” is unworthy of any response.


Doughty, C. and Long, M.H. (2003) Optimal Psycholinguistic Environments for Distance Foreign Language Learning. Downloadable here:

Fulcher, G. See here for all the works cited:

Han, Z,H. & Tarone E.(eds) (2016) Interlanguage Forty years later. Amserdam, Benjamins.

Tarone, E. (2006) Interlanguage. Downloadable here:

Cracks in the Wall?

Recent tweets by the usual suspects – coursebook writers, teacher trainers, publishers, examiners and paid conference speakers – suggest that members of the influential UK-based ELT establishment are getting a bit defensive in the face of growing criticism. Publishers and trainers talk more about “flexibility”; examiners insist on the “validity”of their tests; everybody goes on about  “listening to the learner”.  Dellar tweets from IATEFL Peru:

You quickly realise how little the heated debates of the euro-centric #EFL blogosphere have do with most contexts here.

Jim Scrivener adds:

….or in most teaching contexts in most countries around the world.

You don’t have to be an expert in critical discourse analysis to glean that the heated debates of the euro-centric EFL blogosphere are starting to rattle the composure of at least some of the globe-trotting doyens of ELT. Still, these are small cracks in a very thick wall, and we need to widen the debate so that more people become aware of the mess ELT is in. Pace Dellar, the matters we raise are not euro-centric at all: the commodification of ELT affects teachers and learners everywhere, including Peru, of course.

As Kerr and Wickham (citing Robertson, 2006) point out in an essay that deserves careful reading, it was the 1999 General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) that heralded the transformation of education into a commodity which can be traded like any other in the marketplace. Kerr and Wickham also point out that the most visible manifestation of the commodification of ELT is “the current ubiquity of learning outcomes”. These ‘learning outcomes’manifest themselves most clearly in current ELT performance scales, of which the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is the most well-known. It’s been followed by the Cambridge English Scale and, most audaciously of all, the Pearson Global Scale of English, the GSE.

The GSE is “a granular, precise scale of proficiency” consisting of over 1,800 “can-do” statements that provide context for teachers and learners across reading, writing, speaking and listening”. Coursebooks aligned to these granular learning objectives, serving up tasteless, inoffensive (We Serve No PARSNIPS Here!)  warmed-through McNuggets of sanitised language,  plus placement, formative and high stakes tests aligned to the GSE, provide teachers with absolutely everything they need for modern day teaching. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, the GSE wrongly assumes that its ‘can-do ‘abilities are

  1.  meaningful (what does “Can describe events, real or imagined” mean?), and
  2. develop in the way implied by the hierarchical structure of the scales.

Statistical and psychological unidimensionality are not equivalent, and the pedagogic notion of learners moving unidimensionally along the line from 10 to 90 is ridiculous. Learning an L2 is gradual, incremental and slow, exhibiting plateaus, occasional movement away from, not toward, the L2, and U-shaped or zigzag trajectories rather than smooth, linear contours.

Ridiculous as the GSE is, and despite the fact that it has been roundly condemned by experts in SLA, language teaching and language assessment everywhere, the mad Pearson project marches confidently on, buoyed by the knowledge that it has nothing to fear from the UK-based ELT establishment, who gratefully accept Pearson patronage and abstain from criticism.

Actually, it’s not that they abstain from criticism, it’s more that they abstain from reading or taking any notice of criticism. Scott Thornbury ‘s IATEFL talk this year reported on a small study he did of 6 authors of best-selling “How to teach English as a second/foreign language” books. He asked these influential members of the ELT establishment about the role they played as mediators between researchers and practitioners, and all of them, without exception, were happy to admit that they didn’t read or know much about academic, evidence-based research into language learning, teaching, or assessment. Penny Ur (who only last month, with no sense of irony at all, exhorted everybody to engage in more critical thinking) gave the most dismissive answers to Thornbury’s questions, including this gem:

it’s certainly possible to write helpful and valid professional guidance for teachers with no research references whatsoever.      

She doesn’t sound rattled, now does she!  How much more heated must our debates get, how much louder must we shout, before the wall of smug, anti-academic complacency defending current ELT practice is brought down and members of the UK-based establishment publically recognise that they are serving the interests of big business to the detriment of good teaching?  The evidence is there: teacher training, teaching methodology, teaching materials, and language assessment are all fatally flawed by their subservience to the industrialisation and commodification of education, as exemplified by Pearson’s GSE.

And what about the workers? To return to Kerr and Wicham’s article, they note that “the move towards privatization is accompanied by an overt attack on teachers’ unions, rights, pay and conditions”, and that “the drive to bring down costs has a negative impact on teachers worldwide”.  They cite Gwynt (2015) who catalogues “cuts in funding, large-scale redundancies, a narrowing of the curriculum, intensified workloads (including the need to comply with ‘quality control measures’), the de-skilling of teachers, dilapidated buildings, minimal resources and low morale”.  They also list the conditions of French teachers in the private sector which are shared by tens of thousands of ELT workers worldwide:

  • multiple employers,
  • limited or no job security,
  • limited or no sick pay and holiday pay,
  • little or no on-going training
  • low and deteriorating hourly rates of pay.

Kerr and Wickham conclude:

Given the current climate, teachers will benefit from closer networking with fellow professionals in order, not least, to be aware of the rapidly changing landscape. …. More generally, it is important to recognise that current trends have yet to run their full course. Conditions for teachers are likely to deteriorate further before they improve. More than ever before, teachers who want to have any kind of influence on the way that marketization and industrialization are shaping their working lives will need to do so collectively.


Gwynt, W. (2015) The effects of policy changes on ESOL. Language Issues 26 / 2: 58 – 60.

Kerr, P. and Wickham, A. (2017) ELT as an industry.

Robertson, S. L. (2006) Globalisation, GATS and trading in education services. Centre for Globalisation, Education and Societies, University of Bristol, Bristol BS8 1JA, UK. Available at

Gerontologically speaking, Geragogy’s time has come

What’s the definition of an ‘older person’? Different countries and different contexts afford different answers. According to the Euro-barometer survey (2011), in Slovakia a person is considered ‘old’ at the age of 57, whereas in the Netherlands ‘old’ applies only to people aged 70 and over.  Meanwhile, if you’re trying to get a job, you’ll be considered ‘older’ (i.e. past it) by most employers once you’re 55.  And in research, they’re even more cruel: Withnall (2010) suggests that “50 appears to have become the preferred age for the designation of ‘older adult’”.

I got this information while reading a dissertation that I marked recently, so I can’t acknowledge the author yet, but I will. The dissertation was about older adult foreign language learners, and in the literature review, the author mentioned that the perceived differences in learning processes between children and adults led in the 19th century to an alternative teaching approach for adults named “andragogy”.  The term was takrn up again by Malcolm Knowles, who described andragogy as “the art and science of helping adults to learn” in contrast to pedagogy which is defined as “the art and science of teaching children” (Knowles, 1980:43). Essentially, andragogy adapts teaching to the considerations that  adults are more goal-oriented, more self-directed, more heterogeneous in their learning aims, and more intrinsically motivated than children. Knowles (1980), and later  Knowles et al (2005), make a number of practical suggestions about precisely how teachers should adapt (assume the role of facilitator more than knower, use problem-solving activities, etc.),  but few teachers seem to have heard the message. 

More interesting is Formosa’s (2002) article on ‘critical educational geragogy’, which develops the principles for critical educational gerontology [CEG] first established by Glendenning and Battersby in the 1980s. Referring to “the gritty realities which embed older persons in structured positions of social inequality”, and to the ageist and patronising attitude towards older learners which pervades education, at least in the West, Formosa insists that his approach is “an actual example of ‘transformative education’ rather than yet another euphemism for glorified occupation therapy”.

Most interesting of all is the work of Ramírez-Gómez (2016a, 2016b), who has proposed the extension of critical geragogy to foreign language learning by formulating ‘critical foreign language geragogy’ (CFLG). Ramírez-Gómez argues that current beliefs and prejudices about older learners must be overturned in order to “redefine expectations and goals and improve proficiency”.  I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy of her book yet, but from what I’ve gathered so far, Ramírez-Gómez (2016b) describes a study on Japanese older learners of Spanish which focuses on the influence of learning experiences on vocabulary learning strategy use, often cited as the biggest problem of L2 learning for older people. She examines the influence of experience on the learning process, and common misconceptions about older learners that are imposed on learners and teachers, and proposes a set of practical recommendations for the development and adjustment of foreign language activities for older learners. CFLG puts special emphasis on drawing on the older learners’ experience, their high intrinsic motivation, and their capacity for autonomous development in L2 learning.

As far as I know, research on older L2 learners is very limited, there has been little discussion of the issues raised by Ramírez-Gómez, and hers is the first and the only evidence-based methodology specifically aimed at this growing age group. Given the demographics of so many parts of the world, particularly in Europe, maybe it’s time we paid attention. Prejudice and misconceptions affecting older learners abound, fueled by a general “loss-deficit” perspective which focuses on cognitive ‘decline’ and on what older people can’t do, rather than looking at the things they can actually do better, and the mechanisms they use to compensate for any deficit. I have a personal stake in all this of course, but well, none of us is getting any younger. Just to show that I’m still learning, I’ll put that cliché into the modern English vernacular: So, none of us are youngering, yeah?

Now, if you’ll excuse me, it’s time for The Archers.


Formosa, M. (2011) ‘Critical educational gerontology: A third statement of first principles.’ International Journal of Education and Ageing, 2(1), 317–332.

Knowles, M. (1980) The Modern Practice of Adult Education. From Pedagogy to Andragogy. New Jersey: Cambridge Adult Education.

Knowles, M., E.F. Holton and R.A. Swanson, (2005) The Adult Learner. 6th Edition. London: Elsevier.

Ramírez Gómez, D. (2014) ‘Older adult FL learning: Instructors’ Beliefs and Some Recommendations. In Sonda, N. and A. Krause (Eds.), JALT2013 Conference Proceedings. Tokyo: JALT.

Ramírez Gómez, D. (2016a) ‘Critical geragogy and foreign language learning: An exploratory application.’ Educational Gerontology, 42:2, 136-143.

Ramírez Gómez, D. (2016b) Language Teaching and the Older Adult: The Significance of Experience. Clavedon: Multilingual Matters. Kindle Edition

Withnall, A. (2010) Improving Learning in Later Life. London: Routledge.

What’s aptitude got to do with it?

Ljiljana’s and Aleksandra’s recent posts here were responses to my invitation to NNS teachers to tell us how they learnt English. My original question was to do with the relative importance thay gave to implicit and explicit learning, but behind this lies the more fundamental question of why Ljiljana and Aleksandra (like Hana Tichá, Svetlana Kandybovich, Rose Bard, Thom (who often comments here), Marek Kiczkowiak and other bloggers) succeeded in an endeavour where the majority fail.

One of the key phenomena in SLA research is “incompleteness”, which refers to the fact that most learners fail to reach a high level of ultimate attainment. As Sawyer and Ranta said:

the clearest fact about SLA that we currently have is that L2 learners differ dramatically in their rates of acquisition and in their ultimate attainment (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001: 319).

While it might be “the clearest fact” we have, it is not, alas, the area of SLA research that’s made the most progress; rather the opposite is the case. Explaining the role that individual differences make to SLA has proved very difficult, partly because the theoretical constructs involved are so slippery.

Aptitude would seem to be the individual difference most likely to explain the huge differences in results of foreign language learning, wouldn’t it? “I’m no good at languages” we say, by which we mean that we have no aptitude for it, just as we might say we’re no good at maths, or singing, or cooking. But when we try to define aptitude for language learning so as to get a clear idea of what we’re talking about, it turns out to be notoriously hard to pin down.  Until quite recently, the best attempt to define language aptitude was made by Carroll and Sapon (1959), who produced the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT). This divided language aptitude into four components:

  1. Phonemic Coding Ability
  2. Grammatical Sensitivity
  3. Inductive Language Learning Ability
  4. Rote learning activity for foreign language materials.

Scores on the MLAT subsequently yielded multiple correlations of between 0.40  and 0.60, which is quite impressive. As Sawyer and Ranta commented:

These are considered moderate to strong correlations, and although they imply that considerable learner variation remains to be explained by additional factors, they also demonstrate that language aptitude has consistently been the single best predictor of subsequent language learning achievement (Sawyer and Ranta, 2001: 322).

But there are a number of problems with this view.

  1. The biggest problem is that defining aptitude in terms of a bank of tests falls into the trap of being circular; we say that those who have an aptitude for language learning are those who do well at language aptitude tests. But as with IQ tests, we can turn this round and say that a high score simply shows that you are good at the tests.
  2. Related to this, Oller (1983) argued that the MLAT treats language attitude as simply general intelligence applied to the task of foreign language learning, and there is therefore little point in studying it as a special learner trait.
  3. Then there are unanswered questions. Is aptitude innate, declining with age (linked to the “critical period” argument), or is it a matter of skill development?
  4. Last but not least, the aptitude being defined here seems to relate only to formal instruction, and, what’s more, to a particular type of formal instruction. Cook (1996) argues that the aptitude tests are not relevant to current L2 teaching methodology:
  •  Such tests are not neutral about what happens in the classroom nor about the goals of language teaching.  They assume that learning words by heart is an important part of L2 learning ability, that the spoken language is crucial, and that grammar consists of structural patterns. In short, MLAT mostly predicts how well a student will do in a course that is predominantly audiolingual in methodology rather than in a course taught by other methods.  (Cook, 1996: 101)

Long (2017) seems to agree with Cook when he notes that the MLAT is heavily weighted towards aptitude for analytic, explicit language learning.  He says that it’s not surprising to find moderate to high correlations between scores on such measures and scores on tests of foreign language abilities learned and measured in the same way. Furthermore, although the tests are still good at predicting rate of progress in the early stages of foreign languages taught explicitly, they don’t address questions about success at later stages, or very advanced proficiency, or learners with higher aptitude for implicit language learning, or classroom learners taught by teachers using a communicative methodology.


The Hi-LAB (High-Level Language Aptitude Battery) tests address some of these questions.  Linck et al. (2013) explain:

Hi-LAB was designed to predict the attainment of high-level proficiency—rather than initial rate of learning—with the expectation that high-level acquisition requires going beyond the classroom setting, for instance by participating in an immersion experience. Most of the constructs in Hi-LAB were designed to capture potential for language learning processes that operate in such non-instructional settings, where superior cognitive and perceptual abilities of the learner may enhance the processing of language input and facilitate the mapping in memory of apperceived forms, meaning and function. Hi-LAB does not measure phonetic coding ability (important in learning to read in a foreign language) or grammatical sensitivity (important in explicit language instruction), since those measures already exist and are hypothesized to be more relevant at initial stages. Instead, the focus was on measuring potential for dealing with the remaining language learning problems, such as mastering complex linguistic systems and perceiving non-salient language features. Therefore, we have focused on cognitive and perceptual abilities that are hypothesized to support more advanced aspects of L2 learning that are required to attain high-level proficiency.

The results of the Linck et al. (2013) study are tentative and rather general, but, nevertheless, it’s a promising development. I would love to see how the NNS teachers and bloggers I mentioned at the start of this post would do in Hi-LAB. Both Ljiljana and Aleksandra emphasised the importance of explicit learning, and Aleksandra in particular stressed how much hard work she’d put in to reaching such a high level. Still, I can’t help thinking that there’s more to it than working hard on explicit learning. On top of all their hard work, do they have more than just the ability to get high scores on tests? Do they have exceptional cognitive abilities related to attention and memory that make both explicit and implicit learning easier and faster for them than for most people?

Another thing, of course, is motivation, but we’ll have to leave that for another day.



Carroll J. and Sapon S. (1959). The Modern Languages Aptitude Test. San Antonio, Tx.: The Psychological Corporation.

Linck, J. A., Hughes, M. M., Campbell, S. G., Silbert, N. H., Tare, M., Jackson, S. R., Smith, B. K., Bunting, M. F. and Doughty, C. J. (2013) Hi-LAB: a new measure of aptitude for high-level language proficiency. Language Learning 63(3): 530–66.

Long, M.H. (201) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1.1, pp.7 to 44.

Guest Post: Aleksandra Grabowska Reflects on Learning English as an L2

Inside Warsaw Wniwersity Library

I’m very pleased to introduce Aleksandra, who accepted my open invitation to NNS teachers to tell us about how they learned English.

Aliksandra lives in the north-east of Poland with her family and their dog. She studied agricultural science at university, but got drawn into the world of ELT through her determination to be a really proficent English speaker. She currently works freelance, teaching English at private language schools and doing on line courses via Skype. Aliksandra is an avid reader with a special penchant for whodunnits, she enjoys spending time in the country with her family, and I get the imnpression that she laughs a lot.

So, here’s Aliksandra’s story and her reflections on language learning; I hope you enjoy it as much as I did. Actually, you might enjoy it even more, particularly the bits where my favorite hobbyhorses get a gentle roasting.

 Hi Everybody,

I am writing this guest post, encouraged by Geoffrey Jordan, who asked me to describe how I learned English.

I started learning English at school when I was sixteen. I thought my English teacher had a great accent, very British. We used a textbook in every lesson. But what exactly did a lesson look like? So we read a text, translated it, wrote a list of new words and discussed a particular grammar point. Our Latin lessons looked exactly the same! I don’t know if the grammar-translation method is good or bad, but the lack of communicative activities – pair work, group work discussions, etc. – didn’t help me communicate in English when I went to the UK for the first time. Of course, I wasn’t aware of that then. After two years our English teacher emigrated to the US and we didn’t have English agin until our final year of upper secondary school.

When I was twenty-two I went to the UK for the first time during my summer holidays. At that time I was studying agriculture. It was a student exchange program. With a group of Polish, Czech and Slovakian students I worked Monday to Friday on a farm in Ely. At the weekends there was a lot of sightseeing, which I enjoyed a lot: England enchanted me. And what’s more, finally I got a chance to speak English. But at first I didn’t connect very well – it was like getting blood out of stone, and on my side, I struggled to understand simple conversations, and I was often lost for words. However, I wasn’t too hard on myself, I just enjoyed meeting new people and talking to them in English.

A few years later, when I obtained a degree in agriculture, I went to a language school in London to learn English. I was placed in a group at pre-intermediate level (B1) .The lessons were run in a completely different manner. First of all, the teacher was great – open, energetic. She worked the room. I don’t remember if there was a textbook accompanying the course. What I do remember is a lot of speaking tasks, problem solving activities and group discussions. The teacher also used to tell us anecdotes about her teaching experiences and life in Spain.  I still remember some of the stories and even use them in my lessons if they serve the topic.

I stayed in London for two years, but I only went to school for six months. I also worked part-time in a sandwich bar. I made sandwiches, salads, coffee, and served customers. I worked  with a multicultural staff from Spain, Portugal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and England.  It was quite an experience, in as much as Polish society is rather homogeneous. Apart from learning names of foods and dishes, I  also learned some useful words and phrases, for example instead of. Customers often asked me for margarine or mayonnaise instead of butter on their sandwich. I remember I learned that while serving customers.  One day I even got lucky and saw John Cleese who popped into our sandwich bar to ask where the Tandoori restaurant was. That job helped me open up and speak English. I immersed myself in English, soaking up English and culture. I started speaking the language fluently, i.e. I didn’t have problems with communication and wasn’t afraid of speaking, but I thought my English still wasn’t good enough and I spoke with a strong Polish accent, which I didn’t like at all. I would describe it as survival English.

After two years I decided to come back to Poland. In Poland I passed the FCE exam, then CAE. For the latter, I prepared on my own – I bought a textbook, teacher’s book and cassettes. At that time I was also looking for a job and there was a local primary school looking for an English teacher. I took the plunge, I applied, and I got accepted for the job. Needless to say, I was unprepared. I remember I went to a kind of facilitator teacher to seek advice. She didn’t help me much. There was nobody to teach me the ropes. I thought I would be doing what my best teachers used to do in their lessons. However, the main thing I had to cope with was discipline. There were a lot of children with behavioral problems, but I was very determined and succeeded somehow.

I know I wasn’t the best teacher. I made a lot of mistakes, I lacked experience and knowledge (poor students!); I was learning on the job. Another thing I had to deal with was to keep students interested, so I tried to vary my lessons, make them lively. For example, I recorded parts of BBC programmes on VHS cassettes and built lessons around them, or did something else to keep them engaged. Then I signed up for a methodology course organised by the British Council. The course  helped me a lot.  Also, it gave me a clear path to continue my education. (By the way, the book required for the course was The Practice of English Language Teaching by Jeremy Harmer!) My next step was to enroll in Teacher Training College. I passed the entrance exams and became a happy student. All the other students were also practising English teachers. During my studies I developed my teaching methodology and improved my pronunciation. I benefited greatly  from the insights of my teachers.

My success in learning English I attribute to self-motivation and self-study. For sure, living in the UK helped me communicate fluently. But, when it comes to vocabulary, correctness and pronunciation, all these are down to self-study. The materials I used were mostly coursebooks. They seemed to be a quite obvious choice for self-study. Thanks to coursebooks I enriched my vocabulary, I also did listening exercises especially when I was preparing myself for exams. To practise grammar I used grammar reference books.

Nowadays, with the internet, easy access to information and resources, learning is easier. I read articles, blogs, the news, etc., and I’m still learning. I write down new phrases which I find interesting or useful. I choose what really interests me. I think that for me learning English has always been a conscious process, and still is. I make lists of new words, index cards, I revise. Sometimes I do exercises to recycle vocabulary or grammar. I don’t talk with native speakers, but I use English to communicate with my students. I often try to use simple language. Although I haven’t been to the UK since 2000,  my English has improved tremendously.  Yes, I have learned a lot from teaching. Probably, if I didn’t teach English, I would forget the language.

In regard to the role of implicit and explicit learning, I think both methodologies are effective if they are used as required. In my case I learned English both explicitly (i.e. studied grammar rules and memorized vocabulary) and implicitly (i.e. I read texts in English for pleasure, watched tv, etc.).

Learning a foreign language is a long and often tedious process. There’s no shortcut or hack. I believe that the sine qua non of successful learning is motivation. As Ushioda (2010) says:

“The analysis of motivation and its role in SLA has largely been at the level of global learning outcomes, and research has had little to say about how motivational factors relate to the interim processes of linguistic development. Thus while motivation is recognized as a prerequisite for successful SLA, the relevance of motivation research to understanding the finer detail of how SLA happens has been unclear.”


Ushioda, M. (2010)  Motivation and SLA: Bridging the gap. EuroSLA Yearbook.

Tom The Teacher Goes To The Doctor

Tom went to see the doctor last week. Nothing special, you understand, nothing life threatening, nothing important. Just that he couldn’t breath, he had these stabbing pains in his chest, he was getting cramp in his left leg, he had a sore throat, his nose was blocked, he couldn’t hear low piano notes or what people behind him on the train were saying, floaters were interfering with vision out of his left eye, his sleeping pills weren’t working and he wanted to commit suicide. You know, the usual sort of stuff that prompts one’s visits to the doc. So there he was, alone in the waiting room, leafing through a magazine, reading all about Princess Alicia’s new plans now her husband’s in prison, and how some Hollywood woman is doing a deep sea diving course in preparation for her latest role as a foetus, when suddenly, in walked  this man who looked for all the world like Jordi Pujol, late president of the Catalan parliament. He looked around, and then plonked himself down on a sofa on the other side of the room.

He was about one metre sixty, almost bald, and he had lots of facial tics. In fact, he had a lot of facial hair too – Tom could see all this vibrant hair springing out of his nose and ears, as if to mock his pink bald pate, and it reminded him of the last time he’d spent some time in New York. After a few weeks getting disapproving looks from strangers (you have to be doing something very wrong to attract any attention at all in New York), Tom’s wife persuaded him to go a barbers and while he was waiting for his turn, sitting among a talkative, friendly bunch of aging American men, he noticed that the barber took more time carefully trimming his clients’ nose and ear hair than he did cutting the hair on the top of their heads. Tom made a mental note to add this custom to his annotated version of Hofstede’s cultural dimensions list, which he used as supplementary material for the cross cultural awareness unit in Headway Intermediate, but he’d since completely forgotten about it, until the day at the doctor’s.

We’re back at the doctor’s. Tom watched the man sitting opposite him through the fish tank, that obligatory bit of furniture in doctors waiting rooms which gives you a good idea how much you’re going to pay for the visit. This one was three metres long, polished steel framework, sparsely sprinkled with unlikely-looking fish swimming around in ice blue water, bubbles of air ascending from the inevitable chest of doubloons next to the sunken galleon. “Good doctoral thesis right there”, thought Tom, “fish tanks as predictors of patient satisfaction”.

Jordi (for Tom was by now convinced that it was he) was looking through the aquarium  in Tom’s direction. Tom, fidgeting awkwardly on his seat, couldn’t avoid Jordi’s gaze.  Every few seconds Jordi’s left eye closed in a protracted, slow-motion wink, like one of those lizardy predators with the long tongues you see David Attenborough stroking on telly. Tom couldn’t help staring back; it was like he was being hypnotised. The eyelid went slowly down, closed, there was an uneasy pause, and suddenly it sprang open again. OMG, Tom thought, any minute now his tongue’s going to whip out and I’ll find myself rolled up in a carpet of goo, flying through the air, horizontal to the ground, spinning towards his open gob.

The tension mounted. Over there was this short little guy still working him with the eye, cheeks blowing in and out, hands nervously twitching up to re-adjust strands of hair; and here was Tom, gasping for breath, leg jigging up and down, the pains in his chest getting worse and worse, waiting for the moment when he’d be eaten alive.

“It’s a beautiful day”, Tom ventured.


Now what?  If he’d been a salesman he could have taken a vacuum cleaner out of his briefcase and shown Jordi how much dirt he could scrape off the sofa onto a clean white demonstration hanky, but there was no such easy way in. How to break the ice, ease the tension, get past the block, open the gate and amble through into the domain of easy daily discourse, relax in mutually-affirming meadows of inconsequential intercourse, settle in to savannas of social chit chat, graze carelessly on gossip of topics of the day?


Unable to think of any better strategy, Tom tried a few doctor doctor jokes on him.

“Have you heard these?”  Tom asked him.

Doctor doctor, I think I’m a pair of curtains.     Pull yourself together! says the doc with a chuckle.

Nobody will talk to me.  Next! cries the doc gleefully.

I think I’m a schizophrenic.   Oh yes, says the doc, and what’s your problem?

Nothing! Jordi showed not a glimmer of interest; the fish glided past, time dragged on.  How long could this awful unease go on? What could he say? Which is when he had his epiphany. To be honest, Tom was quite used to ephinanies, he got them almost as often as he got false heart attacks, and, like the heart attacks, they never actually led to much, but anyway, it seemed like a real flash of revelation at the time.

Tom had been groping towards a more lexical approach to his teaching, but he hadn’t quite got the hang of it, he couldn’t find the glue for all these useful bits and pieces, or to put it another way, he still wasn’t seeing the whole pineapple.  And now the epiphany, the realisation that the glue, the pineapple, was social embarrassment. All over the planet and round the clock countless millions of people suffered moments like the one he was going through right now. Rather than look for valid criteria for selecting lexical chunks based on frequency, saliency, any of that stuff, all you had to do was to concentrate on the chunks most likely to help you overcome social embarrassment. To back up “Could I have a coffee, please?’” you’d have the sequel: “I’m so sorry, I thought you were a waiter”. Rather than just “Hi there, my name’s Sandy”, you’d teach “Goodness me! Is that the time?”as well. Think of how much could be achieved by banishing social embarrassment! World peace would be assured once Donald and Teresa and Vladimir, and Angela and Xi and the rest had been through the right English training programme, and the same progress could be expected in business, science, education, and, indeed, all aspects of social life too.

“Dig Yourself Out Of A Hole English” (DYOOAH English) he’d call it. It would concentrate on conversational moves, be stuffed full of lexical chunks and prefabricated whatsits, starting, naturally, with conversation starters. Why just the other day he was looking at web sites offering  the very thing. He quickly found the 250 Conversation Starters web site  on his phone and he was off:

Hi, I’m Tom.   What type of phone is that?

Or: Do you sleep with a stuffed animal?

Or: How often do you shower?

Or: What’s your worst nightmare?

Brilliant! You’d have to be careful, of course, For example, questions about pets aren’t  safe when visiting Barcelona, because “pet” in Catalan is “fart”.

Conversation starters didn’t have to be questions, though. You could kick off with a compliment, couldn’t you.

  • Nice minimalist tiara you’re wearing tonight ma’am,
  • I just love your flowery flip flops sweetie,
  • Banging nose tattoo bro,

that sort of thing. Still, even these could go wrong. “Congratulations!” you say, throwing a winning smile at the visiting CEO’s tummy, only for her to tell you “I’m not pregnant”.

It was becoming clearer: all moves could fail, there were always pitfalls, chances to dig yourself further into the mess. So you’d have to do a flow diagram, then work out a simple IFTTT (If This Then That, do keep up) ap. You’re at a wine tasting and you say “I’m getting vanilla”. If the sommelier says “That’s the water – the wine’s in the other glass”, what do you say?  You’re on a tour through a factory and you ask one of the workers what she’s holding. If she says “Cheese and ham sandwich”, what do you say? By now Tom was lost, chasing down one false trail after another.

What was that great rejoinder Winston Churchill made at a dinner party?

Lady Astor: Winston, you’re drunk.

Churchill: And you Madam, are ugly, but I’ll be sober tomorrow!

And what was the famous misleading guide book advice for visitors to London?

Try the famous echo in the British Library Reading Room.

What a shame that they’d moved the library; it had been such a great place to read; he still had his card. Still, the new building was very nice, good cheap restaurant, …. The epiphany had passed and the Dig Yourself Out approach to ELT passed with it. Next thing Tom knew, he was being ushered in to meet the doc and he never got to ask Jordi if he slept with a stuffed animal.

Guest Post: Ljiljana Havran Reflects on Learning English as an L2

A few days ago, in reply to a comment by Aleksandray Grabowska, I invited bloggers for whom English is an L2 to tell us how they learned English. Today, I’m delighted to introduce Ljiljana Havran, the first to respond to the challenge (to be followed soon, I hope, by Aleksandray and others).

Ljiljana has an MA from the University of Belgrade and has been teaching General and Aviation English at the Aviation Academy in Belgrade for the last 18 years. She has a great blog,  Ljiljana Havran’s Blog: My English language teaching & learning adventure, where she combines excellent practical advice and teaching tips with critically acute, progressive views of ELT.  Apart from sharing many views on ELT, Ljiljana and I also like the same poets, jazz bands, parts of the UK and Belgrade pastry shops.

Over to Ljiljana.

It is my great pleasure to write this guest post. The post is inspired by Geoff’s recent posts on explicit and implicit learning and knowledge. My main aim is to reflect on my L2 learning experience, especially in relation to the role of explicit and implicit learning. I want also to support the claim that implicit learning is the default mode in second language acquisition and that therefore the use of a synthetic syllabus and a PPP methodology is very inefficient in instructed SLA.

My L2 Learning Experience

Dorset Jurassic coast @elt_pics used under a CC Attribution Non-Commercial license 

I started learning English in primary school when I was ten years old. In my primary and secondary school we would often listen to the teacher read a text from the textbook, and then after reading the text we would be called on (one at a time) to read several sentences. After we had finished reading we were asked to translate the text into Serbian. The teacher helped us with new vocabulary items by writing the meaning of the words on the board, in Serbian.  Afterwards, we would do reading comprehension questions in our textbooks: one by one each student would read a question and then give his/her response. If the answer was incorrect, the teacher would ask another student to provide the correct answer, or the teacher her/himself gave the right answer. There was a lot of “chalk and talk” in classes, and a lot of L1 use, especially while doing grammar exercises and preparing for tests.

My secondary (grammar) school teacher struck me as special because of his teacher personality: he was well educated, more proficient in English and excellent at encouraging a friendly, relaxed learning environment. His grammar explanations were short and to the point, he often used synonyms and explanations in L2 while teaching vocabulary, and his pronunciation was very clear and correct. We revised grammar structures and vocabulary by doing grammar drills, re-telling the paragraphs of the literary excerpts in the textbook, and we practised translating (isolated) sentences from L1 into L2 while preparing for tests.

During my primary and secondary education my English classes were very teacher-centred (grammar-translation method was a common method in our schools). We used textbooks (with literary excerpts and grammar exercises out of context), based on a linear model of language acquisition which operates on the premise that learners acquire one target language item at a time, in a sequential, step-by-step fashion. This implies concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study. Thus after the eight years of learning L2 I was better at doing grammar tests and translating some (abridged) literary excerpts (intermediate level) than using English in everyday situations; I could not understand the TV programmes or the films with standard dialect.

Before enrolling at the Belgrade Faculty of Philology (English and Italian language and literature), I went to Brighton on a summer course for exchange students. I spent a month with a local family, immersed in the English culture and language. I enjoyed listening to beautiful English language (which to my great surprise was a lot different from the English language I had been taught in Serbia). A communicative language teaching approach was used by the teachers during the summer course: a lot of interesting listening and speaking activities, role plays and games, chatting with English teachers and foreign students at school and during our school trips and parties, were really refreshing and an invaluable experience for me. English use in everyday situations rapidly broke down my inhibitions; I became more confident and truly motivated to improve my language skills and be more fluent in English.

Moving from the intermediate to an upper-intermediate and advanced level of language proficiency required years and years of work and effort. After graduating from the University of Belgrade, when I started teaching English to secondary school students, I was much more confident about the language theory (particularly grammar) than my language skills.  I was genuinely interested in going to ELT seminars and conferences to improve my teaching techniques. Very soon I realized that I needed to improve my language proficiency level, too, if I wanted to use the CLT approach that I found more useful for my students. I had a strong desire then to sound more like a native English speaker. I found a very good native English teacher in Belgrade and really enjoyed the one-to-one classes for about a year. We negotiated the topics, I brought to classes some interesting texts/ newspaper articles, we discussed the English books he recommended, and some films I loved, etc. We focused especially on conversation in order to enrich my vocabulary and improve my pronunciation. I was well aware that having a native like competence meant speaking idiomatically and using frequent and familiar collocations and phrases, so my main goal was to learn and use automatically these familiar word sequences.

I succeeded in acquiring an advanced level of proficiency, and practising connected speech and intonation (the most challenging part of learning L2) helped me a lot to improve my listening. However, I got to grips with the fact that native like speech and intonation was an unattainable goal for me and, actually, completely unnecessary for my profession. I have been teaching English and ESP (Aviation English) for more than 20 years (my MA thesis was on ESP: Language-related Miscommunications and Misunderstandings in Pilot/Controller Communications). I created the aviation English syllabus in my school and wrote two Aviation English workbooks for 3rd and 4th year students, with my own materials used in the classroom.

During the last four years I have improved my writing through blogging. Since I don’t have the time to read SLA research I found Geoff Jordan’s blog very useful. I have got a lot of insights on learning L2 also through teaching English to teenagers and talking to them about teaching/ learning.The teenage (intermediate level) students who are fluent in English when asked to explain how they study the language, usually say that they have never studied it. This may sound strange to someone, but it is completely true. They have been immersed in English for years: watching Cartoon network and other popular English/American channels (films are not dubbed into Serbian!), listening to music on the YouTube channel, playing games and chatting with their foreign friends, reading e-books, and news articles. They have acquired fluency by being exposed to many Englishes (varieties/ dialects/accents) on a daily basis since they were very young.

This young generation of EFL learners has learned L2 without learning the grammar rules first (as my generation did). They find learning English from a coursebook boring and outdated because a lot of English is available online and outside the classroom. I strongly believe that EFL classes will be much more interesting and effective if teachers provide opportunities for students to use L2 communicatively and spontaneously. Students will be more motivated if their teachers devote most of the class time to negotiating meaning and meaningful tasks and only a small proportion of time to explicit teaching of grammar or vocabulary, and if they use mostly English in classes and react to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Against Walkley and Dellar’s Lexical Approach

Theories of Language 

1. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of language.  They talk about two opposing views. The first view, the “wrong” one, is that “language can be reduced to a list of grammar structures that you can drop single words into.”  This is called the “grammar + words” view; it’s described  on page 9 of Teaching Lexically and subsequently referred to dozens of times throughout the book. The description is a derelict misrepresentation of grammar models of the English language such as those found in Quirk (1985), or Swan (2001), which describe the structure of English in terms of grammar, the lexicon and phonology.

2. The second view , the “right” one, is an attempt to summarise Hoey’s (2005) view that the best model of language structure is the word, along with its collocational and colligational properties. Collocation and “nesting” (words join with other primed words to form a sequence) are linked to contexts and co-texts, and grammar is replaced by a network of chunks of words. There are no rules of grammar; there’s no English outside a description of the patterns we observe among those who use it. As Hoey himself  points out,

If this view of language is correct, if grammar and semantics are post-hoc effects of the way lexical items have been primed, … there is no right or wrong in language. It makes little sense to talk of something being ungrammatical. All one can say is that a lexical item or items are used in a way not predicted by your priming…. everybody’s language is truly unique, in that all our lexical items are primed differently as a result of different encounters.

3. Few linguists or teachers accept such a view. Hoey argues that we should look only at attested behaviour and abandon descriptions of syntax, but, while nobody these days denies the importance of lexical chunks, very few want to ignore the rules which guide the construction of novel, well formed sentences. After all, pace Hoey, people speaking English (including learners of English as an L2) invent millions of novel utterances every day, and they do so by making use of, among other things, grammatical knowledge. Walkley and Dellar acknowledge the importance of grammar, indicating some limits to their adherence to Hoey’s model, but they nowhere clarify these limits.

4. While Walkley and Dellar repeatedly stress that their different view of language is what drives their approach to teaching, they fail to offer any  coherent account of “a lexical view of language”.

Theories of Language Learning 

5. Walkley and Dellar offer no coherent account of how people learn an L2: no examination or evaluation of theories of SLA is attempted.

6. Hoey’s Lexical Priming Theory is adopted without any proper description or evaluation being attempted. The bare claim is made that when we learn a lexical item, it becomes primed for collocation, grammatical category, semantic associations and colligation, and that’s how we learn language.

7. When one looks at serious attempts by Nick Ellis and others to develop a theory of language learning based on usage and statistical learning, where priming  is an integrated component, the inadequacies of Walkley and Dellar’s “explanation” are particularly apparent.

There is need for a detailed theoretical analysis of the processes of explicit and implicit learning. What can be learned implicitly? If implicit learning is simply associationist learning and the induction of statistical regularities, what aspects of language can be so acquired? Just how modular and inaccessible are the implicit learning processes for language acquisition? What are the various mechanisms of explicit learning that are available to the language learner? If the provision of explicit rules facilitates, or if Implicit AND Explicit Learning are necessary for the acquisition of certain forms, what is the nature of these rules? What are the developmental paths of implicit and explicit learning abilities? Are there sensitive periods for implicit language acquisition?  (N. Ellis, 2015, p.2)

8. Instead of stating a coherent view of (second) language learning, Walkley and Dellar offer 6 “principles of learning”, which aren’t principles at all. They say:

“Essentially, to learn any given item of language, people need to carry out the following stages:

  1. Understand the meaning of the item.
  2. Hear/see an example of the item in context.
  3. Approximate the sounds of the item.
  4. Pay attention to the item and notice its features.
  5. Do something with the item – use it in some way.
  6. Repeat these steps over time, when encountering the item again in other contexts”.

We’re not told what “an item” of language is, though there must be tens or even hundreds of thousands of them, or how they all get learned in this 6-step process.

9. Note that the key Step 4 is bolted on to Hoey’s explanation of language learning. Hoey says Krashen’s distinction between acquisition and learning is correct: explicit learning only functions as a monitor, and priming is the unconscious process through which language acquisition happens. Walkley and Dellar turn to Schmidt for the “paying attention and noticing” bit of priming, but they fail to explain how Schmidt’s hypothesis works inside the framework of Hoey’s theory.

Teaching Lexically  

10. Teaching Lexically involves using a product (Breen, 1987) or synthetic (Long, 2015) syllabus, and  “doing things to learners” (Breen, 1987). In Teaching Lexically, teachers make all the decisions. They work with a pre-confected syllabus and students are expected to learn the “items” that the teacher selects by going through the 6 stages listed above.

11. The goal is to teach lots of lexical chunks. The chapters in Part B of Teaching Lexically on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.

12. Walkley and Dellar promote the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, they run counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching where students are seen as learners whose needs and opinions have to be continuously sought out and acted upon.

13. Walkley and Dellar take an extreme interventionist position on teaching. The language is divided into items, small numbers of which are presented to learners via various types of texts, and practised using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items. Most of class time is given over to explicit teaching.

14. Translation into the L1 is regarded as the best way of dealing with meaning. Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching so the lesson is conducted mainly in the L2. This is only to suggest that while using the L1 can be helpful, it should be done sparingly.

15. Walkley and Dellar see explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and they assume that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions clash with SLA research findings. As Long says:

“implicit and explicit learning, memory and knowledge are separate processes and systems, their end products stored in different areas of the brain” (Long, 2015, p. 44).

16. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

17. Learners of English as an L2 require knowledge of about 5,000 word families for adequate comprehension of speech and 9,000 for reading. Since there clearly isn’t enough time to handle that many items in class, massive amounts of extensive reading outside class, scaffolded by teachers, should be encouraged.

18. As for lexical chunks, there are hundreds of thousands of them. As Swan (2006) points out, “memorising 10 lexical chunks a day, a learner would take nearly 30 years to achieve a good command of 10,000 of them”. So how does one select which chunks to explicitly teach, and how does one teach them? Walkley and Dellar give no satisfactory answer to the question.   The general line is: work with the material you have, and look for the lexical chunks that occur in the texts, or that are related to the words in the texts. This is clearly not a satisfactory criterion for selection.

19. Walkley and Dellar make no mention of the fact that learning lexical chunks is one of the most challenging aspects of learning English as an L2 for adult learners.  They simply assume that by going through the 6 step process, and devoting a great deal of time to Step 4, the explicit teaching will turn into implicit knowledge and communicative competence. Quite apart from the question of how many chunks a teacher is expected to treat so exhaustively, there are good reasons to question the assumption that such instruction will have the desired result.


20. One of the most important questions confronting those designing English as an L2 courses is this:

What proportion of class time (from 0% to 100%) should be devoted to a focus on the L2 as object and what proportion on the L2 as a medium of communication, given that both are necessary parts of any ELT course?

In my reply to Walkly, I quoted  Wong, Gil and Marsden (2014) who concluded that, despite other differences, most SLA researchers agreed on the relative importance of the roles of implicit and explicit learning.

“Implicit learning is more basic and more important  than explicit learning, and superior.  Access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous  speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content”.

21. While research shows that explicit instruction can have beneficial results, nobody who has studied instructed SLA recommends devoting most of classroom time to it. There are greater gains to be made in interlanguage development by concentrating on activities which help implicit knowledge than by concentrating on the presentation and practice of bits and pieces of language. Activities which develop the learners’ ability to make meaning in the L2, through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback should take up the majority of classroom time.

22. We know that teaching is, as Long (2015) puts it, “subject to the learner’s cognitive ‘veto’” but we can still manipulate the linguistic environment so as to affect whether implicit or explicit learning takes place. We can choose the type of input to which learners are exposed, the relevance of the input to the learner’s needs, the sequence and salience of linguistic features within that input, and the tasks we give learners. Some tasks, like dictation, oral drills, written fill-in-the-blanks exercises,  focus on language as object and encourage intentional and explicit language learning. Others, like “solving a problem through small group discussion, reading an interesting story, or repairing a bicycle while watching a ‘how-to’ video on YouTube”, to give Long’s examples, encourage a focus on meaning and communication, and in the process create opportunities for incidental learning.  Our decisions about how to manipulate the linguistic environment should, I suggest, be made in a principled way that respects what we know about the process of SLA, and reflects our pedagogical principles.

23. For the reasons discussed above, my argument is that Walkley and Dellar’s views are mistaken, misguided, and misleading. They give no adequate account of language or of language learning, and they promote an approach to teaching which is unlikely to be efficient in helping learners develop communicative competence or to achieve a functional command of the L2.


Breen, M. (1987) Contemporary Paradigms in Syllabus Design, Part 2. Language Teaching, 20, 2.

Ellis, N. (2015) Implicit AND Explicit Language Learning: Their dynamic interface and complexity
In Rebuschat (Ed.). Implicit and explicit learning of languages (pp. 3-23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. Wiley.

Swan, M. (12005) Practical English Usage. London, Longmans.

Quirk, Randolph and Greenbaum, Sidney and Leech, Geoffrey and Svartvik, Jan. (1985) A Comprehensive Grammar of the English Language. London: Longman.

Walkley and Coursebooks: Part 2

In Complicating the coursebook debate, Part 3: Coursebook use  Walkley continues his defence of coursebooks. He starts by quoting this from a post I wrote called “The lose-lose folly of coursebook consumption”:

The coursebooks listed are similar in that they consist of a number of units, each of them containing activities involving the presentation and practice of target versions of L2 structures, vocabulary, collocations, functions, etc., using the 4 skills. All of them assume that the teacher will lead students through each unit and do the succession of activities in the order that they’re set out. And all of them wrongly assume that if learners are exposed to selected bits of the L2 in this way, one bit at a time in a pre-determined sequence, then, after enough practice, the new bits, one by one, in the same sequence, will become part of the learners’ growing L2 competence.

I’ll now summarise the points he makes and reply to them.

Point 1

Coursebooks vary in many ways, and they’re used in an incredible variety of ways.


To the extent that coursebooks follow the format outlined above, and to the extent that teachers generally follow the coursebook (doing the warm-up before the listening exercise, reading the text before doing the discussion, etc., and doing Unit 1, then Unit 2, then Unit 3, etc.) the variations referred to don’t affect the argument in any serious way. Of course teachers make creative use of coursebooks, but unless they use them only here and there, unless they deliberately subvert them, the coursebook plays a defining role in the organisation and content of the course it’s used in.

Point 2

I don’t believe that everything I present and encourage practice of will be learned, let alone learned in the same pre-determined sequence as its presented in.


Walkley doesn’t expand on this, or explain just what he thinks happens to his students when he presents and practices bits of the L2 that are presented in the coursebook.

Point 3

From the point of view of ‘Natural Approaches’ such as Task-Based Learning or Dogme, in their strongest forms there seems to be a denial that teaching or the study of lanuage has any benefit at all. I would argue that is because these theories were born out of a concern about the development of grammar and grammatical accuracy, with vocabulary only getting a look in at a later stage in these theories’ development.


I’m not sure what “Natural Approaches” Walkley is referring to, but no Task-Based Language Teaching (TBLT) approach I’ve heard of denies the value of teaching or studying language, and neither do Meddings and Thornbury (Dogme’s founders). The objection is to spending too much time on it.

Note: TBLT and Dogme are not theories.

Point 4

There is, though, a clear benefit to be derived from studying vocabulary. Non-coursebook users also need to consider how many tasks can be covered in one lesson, how quickly the complexity of these tasks can develop and how often similar tasks can be repeated within a lesson and across lessons. For the weaker forms of TBL which may both present models of tasks and use of materials banks to focus on form, we need to ask how those models and materials are different to those that may be found in a coursebook.


The difference between TBLT materials and those found in a coursebook is that in the  case of TBLT,

  1. they’re informed by a needs analysis and other consultations with the students who will do the course at a local level;
  2. most of the materials are used as input which helps in the performance of communicative tasks, where the L2 is used to perform particular functions, not studied as an object.

In the case of Long’s TBLT, his use of “input simplification and elaboration” is the key.  In the case of Dogme, the materials differ in that students themselves are encouraged to contribute a lot of them, and, as with TBLT, they are not used in the service of a synthetic syllabus. (See Meddings and Thornbury (2009) and my post on Two types of TBLT for a fuller discussion.)

Point 5

If you look at the ‘activities’ in Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate you’ll see that “the various speaking tasks don’t suggest that new bits will be learned one by one in the same sequence as they are presented in”, and “there is no reason why you couldn’t do the tasks in a completely different order”. Nevertheless,

“the sequence of activities derives from the goal of wanting students to have a realistic conversation about giving good and bad news and to express their own feelings about how others are feeling. So firstly, while we pick out some vocabulary and grammar to focus on in the exercise sequences, we would expect this to be a relatively minor part of the conversation that students practice. A teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material. With many of the tasks that we suggest students do in our books, there is a similar kind of relationship between input and skills. If students and teachers don’t take advantage of these opportunities or take a narrower view of the material, hey, what’cha gonna do?”


First, one might have some questions about the goal of Unit 2 of Outcomes Intermediate (What sense does such an abstract goal have? What’s “realistic”? What feelings? What are the contexts? Etc..).

Second, what criteria inform the “picking” of the bits of vocabulary and grammar which are focused on “in the exercise sequence”? Frequency? Level of difficulty? Appeal to students of “Intermediate General English”??

Third, if you look at Unit 2 of the book, you’ll see that it concentrates on explicit instruction and makes it likely that a majority of total class time will be spent learning about bits of the L2 rather than using the L2 for communicative interaction. Walkley’s comment that “a teacher may find numerous opportunities to look at other forms during the lesson – and that’s exactly what I do when I use the material” is telling: he wants to do even more teaching.

Point 6

Walkley ends by saying that when using Outcomes, he has somtetimes started with the conversation practice, taught aspects of language not included in the unit, dropped some tasks, adapted the exercises, and “asked students to look at some vocabulary from the unit before starting”.


See the reply to Point 1 above.

Walkley fails to address the main issue, which is that most coursebooks, including his Outcomes series, embody a synthetic syllabus where the target language is treated as an object of study, and chopped up into bits which the teacher presents to students and then practices. Coursebook-driven ELT flies in the face of what we know about how people learn an L2, and requires all the creativity and ingenuity that teachers possess to rescue it from being both ineffective and tedious.


Meddings, L. and Thornbury, S. (2009)Teaching Unplugged: Dogme in English Language Teaching, Delta Publishing.

A Reply to Walkley’s Defence of Coursebooks

In a post that I missed a couple of months ago, Andrew Walkley replied to criticisms of coursebooks. 

Before we look at his comments, let’s briefly recall what we know about SLA, drawing in part on the first issue of the Instructed Second Language Acquisition Journal , which has articles by Bill VanPatten and by Mike Long.

One of the most robust constructs in SLA research is “Interlanguage Development”. As Doughty and Long (2003) say

There is strong evidence for various kinds of developmental sequences and stages in interlanguage development, such as the well known four-stage sequence for ESL negation (Pica, 1983; Schumann, 1979), the six-stage sequence for English relative clauses (Doughty, 1991; Eckman, Bell, & Nelson, 1988; Gass, 1982), and sequences in many other grammatical domains in a variety of L2s (Johnston, 1985, 1997). The sequences are impervious to instruction, in the sense that it is impossible to alter stage order or to make learners skip stages altogether (e.g., R. Ellis, 1989; Lightbown, 1983). Acquisition sequences do not reflect instructional sequences, and teachability is constrained by learnability (Pienemann, 1984). 

See my post on Interlanguage for more on this.

If  SLA involves ordered development and this ordered development is impervious to instruction, what’s going on in learners’ minds?  VanPatten (2017) reviews some of the explanations on offer. Chomsky (1957) suggests that language is special and involves a language-specific module for learning. Krashen (1981) closely follows with his “Natural order” hypothesis and the distinction between acquisition and learning. Other approaches look to the processing aspects of language, including Processability Theory (e.g. Pienemann, 1998); processing constraints more generally (e.g. O’Grady, 2015); and general learning mechanisms that are not related to language. These types of approaches include emergentism and usage-based approaches (e.g. N. Ellis and Wulff, 2015) as well as dynamic systems (e.g. Larsen-Freeman, 2015). (See VanPatten, 2017 for all these references.)

Probably the most important issue in the various accounts of language learning concerns the roles of implicit and explicit learning. With regard to this fundamental question, despite important disagreements among those adopting generativists, processing or usage-based approaches to L2 learning, and despite the related differences in interface (strong/weak/no) positions on explcit and implicit knowledge, there is widespread agreement that, as Long (2017) puts it “the relevant goal for instruction is implicit learning, resulting in implicit L2 knowledge”.  Long continues:

In an article on classroom research, Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) noted that while generativists and general cognitivists disagree over the viability of inductive learning as a substitute for innate linguistic knowledge, both camps consider implicit learning more basic and more important than explicit learning, and superior. This is because access to implicit knowledge is automatic and fast, and is what underlies listening comprehension, spontaneous speech, and fluency. It is the result of deeper processing and is more durable as a result, and it obviates the need for explicit knowledge, freeing up attentional resources for a speaker to focus on message content. ….Whong, Gil, and Marsden (2014) conclude:

“In sum, we argue that the distinction between implicit and explicit knowledge needs to be more robustly recognized in research design, and suggest that implicit knowledge should be the target of research, regardless of theoretical premise” (2014:557).

Long agrees, as do Nick Ellis (2005), Robinson (1996), Williams (2005), Rebuschat (2008), Rastelli (2014), and most of those cited above. All the research indicates that learning an L2 is not best facilitated by presenting and practicing bits and pieces of language according to criteria such as “difficulty” or “frequency of occurrence”, but rather by developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through exposure to comprehensible input, participation in discourse, and implicit or explicit feedback.  At the same time, we should note that the evidence clearly indicates a role for explicit instruction, even if it’s a much smaller role than implicit instruction. To cite Long (2017) again, he points to the case of Julie (Ioup et al. 1994) whose achievement of near-native L2 through long-term residence without the aid of any instruction at all suggests to him that most of an L2 can be acquired implicitly given sufficient time and high enough aptitude for implicit language learning. But, as he concludes “the problem for instructed Instructed Second Language Acquisition is that vanishingly few L2 learners have both”. Neither expicit nor implicit learning alone can get those who sign up for any kind of L2 learning course to their goals, but if the goal is a functional command of the L2, then implicit learning should be the default and should take up most of the time.

Walkley’s Reply

What, then, of Walkley’s reply to my claim that most coursebooks implement a synthetic syllabus based on 3 false assumptions about SLA? With regard to Assunption 1 (declarative knowledge converts to procedural knowledge through a process of presentation and practice) he responds by saying that “passing on knowledge is a starting point, not a final destination”. He says:

There is no doubt that knowing that the past tense of “has” is “had” doesn’t mean that with a bit of classroom practice you can use “had” fluently and correctly in real-time communication.  Of course the job is not finished when irregular past tenses are presented and practised in class. But that’s true of all types of classroom teaching. Would the job be finished if the past tense of “had” was required during a task and ‘emerged’ or was ‘noticed’ or ‘recast’ or whatever?  Of course not! Students will continue to make mistakes because whether this information is passed on to students through a task or a ‘bit of classroom practice’, the information still remains essentially declarative at that point.”

What we know about instructed SLA (ISLA) indicates that most of the knowledge “passed on” by explicit language instruction doesn’t become inplicit knowledge and is of little use in achieving a functional use of the L2. If a synthetic syllabus devotes most of the time focusing on the L2 as object, the learners will get too little opportunity to gain implicit knowledge and to drive forward interlanguage development. Walkley assumes that all types of classroom teaching involve passing on explicit knowledge about language as a necessary “first step”, and that spending a lot of time passing on explicit knowledge about language is common to all teaching approaches. He’s wrong on both counts.

Next, Walkley takes my remark that SLA is more like learning to swim than learning geography, and says:

 Jordan’s analogy with swimming is surprisingly helpful here, though perhaps not for reasons he realises. During most swimming lessons above absolute beginner levels, nearly all instructors work outside the water! They are telling students what to do (declarative knowledge) and getting students to proceduralise this – often through rather synthetic (and to my mind rather monotonous) tasks such as ‘practise breathing out underwater’ or ‘swim with your legs only’. ….

The lesson for teachers and learners is that you have to make use of the language you have ‘learned’ – and do so repeatedly over time. Certainly, a coursebook should give opportunities to make use of language and should ensure proper recycling over time, but it may not. A task-based syllabus should certainly provide opportunities to make use of language, but it may not be the same language over time. Although, of course, it might be! It all depends.

Again, Walkley assumes that all ISLA, no matter whether a synthetic or analytic sylabus is being implemented, and no matter what pedagogical principles inform the teacher, consists of teachers explicitly teaching students about the L2  (passing on knowledge) and then helping them practice it. Again, he’s wrong. One thing is using a coursebook to implement a synthetic syllabus. This imples concentrating on explicit knowledge and spending most of the time treating the L2 as an object of study.  Another, different, and I suggest better thing, is using a needs analysis and a means analysis to identify target tasks from which pedagogical tasks are designed, and then making the pedagogical tasks the basis for an analytical syllabus where the time is spent developing the ability to function successfully in the L2 in well-defined areas. This implies concentrating on implicit knowledge, coupled with some explicit feedback.  I should add that the Dogme approach also rejects coursebooks, rejects synthetic syllabuses, and concentrates on developing the ability to make meaning in the L2 through a predominantly implicit learning process.

In a section titled “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?”, Walkley addresses the second false assumption made by coursebook writers, namely that SLA is a process of mastering, one by one, accumulating structural items. (The assumption is false because all the items are inextricably inter-related.)  He writes:

…while I basically agree that SLA is not a process of mastering, one by one, accumulated structural items as in some kind of building block process, you could argue that the next point that ‘Teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA’ is slightly contradictory. It seems clear that language learners move from more or less ungrammaticalised words to grammaring the words they know in progressively more complex ways: this is the route. So in the case of questions, students at the lowest levels will generally start by just using a word, maybe with intonation or gesture – coffee?; then move to a string of words – you want coffee?; to grammaticalised strings – Do you want a coffee?; to more complex sentences – Are you sure you want a coffee? If you were a mad person and did these as consecutive lessons, your students would not be producing all these different question types.

The route he describes is not the route described by those who have studied the development of interlanguages (see Cazden, Cancino, Rosansky and Schumann (1975) for sequence of interrogative forms), but even if it were, how would this challenge the claim that teaching affects the rate, but not the route of SLA? Walkley is yet again assuming that ISLA is characterised by teachers passing on explicit knowledge and then practicing it. From this “idée fixe”, he argues that it would be mad to “do” the different stages he describes of question formation in consecutive lessons. He’s right, of course, but nobody in the literature suggested such a thing in the first place; that is, nobody suggested speeding up the rate of interlanguage development by “doing” (i.e. explicitly  teaching) bits of the L2 “in the right order”. Note the question at the start: “When do you move on to a new ‘teaching’?” It is, surely, the wrong question, and one that explains Walkley’s misunderstanding about the conclusions drawn from interlanguage research. Pace Walkley, ISLA is not best seen as addressing the question of when to “pass on” which new bit of knowledge.

Nevertheless, that’s the way Walkley sees it, and if we share his (in my opinion, blinkered) view then there really isn’t much difference between using a coursebook and using a TBLT or Dogme approach, because they all involve the same basic thing: the teacher presents and practises bits of the target language. This approach to ELT is perfectly evident in Dellar and Wlakley’s book Teaching Lexically (see here for a full review).

Teaching Lexically is very teacher-centred. There’s no suggestion anywhere of including students in decisions affecting what and how things are to be learned: teachers make all the decisions. The teacher decides the mainly lexical “items” to be taught, the sequence of presentation of these “items”, plus how they are to be recycled and revised.

There’s an almost obsessive concentration on teaching as many lexical chunks as possible. The need to teach as much vocabulary as possible pervades the book. The chapters in Part B on teaching speaking, reading, listening and writing are driven by the same over-arching aim: look for new ways to teach more lexis, or to re-introduce lexis that has already been presented.

The book promotes the view that education is primarily concerned with the transmission of information. In doing so, it runs counter to the principles of learner-centred teaching, as argued by educators such as John Dewey, Sebastian Faure, Paul Friere, Ivan Illich, and Paul Goodman, and supported in the ELT field by educators such as Chris Candlin, Catherine Doughty, Caorl Chapelle, Grahame Crookes, Rebecca Brent, Earl Stevick, John Faneslow, Vivian Cook, Sue Sheerin, Alan Maley and Mike Long.  All these educators reject the view of education as the transmission of information, and, instead, see the student as a learner whose needs and opinions have to be continuously taken into account. For just one opinion, see  Weimer (2002) who argues for the need to bring about changes in the balance of power; changes in the function of course content; changes in the role of the teacher: changes in who is responsible for learning; and changes in the purpose and process of evaluation.

Teaching Lexically involves dividing the language into items, presenting them to learners via various types of carefully-selected texts, and practising them intensively, using pattern drills, exercises and all the other means outlined in the book, including comprehension checks, error corrections and so on, before moving on to the next set of items.  As such, it mostly replicates the grammar-based PPP method it so stridently criticises. Furthermore, it sees translation into the L1 as the best  way of dealing with meaning, because it wants to get quickly on to the most important part of the process , namely memorising bits of lexis with their collocates and even co-text.  Compare this to an approach that sees the negotiation of meaning as a key aspect of language teaching, where the lesson is conducted almost entirely in English and the L1 is used  sparingly, where students have chosen for themselves some of the topics that they deal with, where they contribute some of their own texts, and where most of classroom time is given over to activities where the language is used communicatively and spontaneously, and where the teacher reacts to linguistic problems as they arise, thus respecting the learners’ ‘internal syllabus’.

Teaching Lexically sees explicit learning and explicit teaching as paramount, and it assumes that explicit knowledge can be converted into implicit knowledge through practice. These assumptions, like the assumptions that students will learn what they’re taught in the order they’re taught it, clash with SLA research findings. To assume, as Dellar and Walkley do, that the best way to teach English as an L2 is to devote the majority of classroom time to the explicit teaching and practice of pre-selected bits of the language is to fly in the face of SLA research.

As Long (2017) argues

“the direct effects of instruction are limited to manipulations of the linguistic environment, with only indirect effects on learning processes. The learner’s use of this or that cognitive process can be intended by the instructional designer, but cannot be stipulated or guaranteed. For example, explicit instruction is designed to invoke intentional learning – a conscious operation in which the learner attends to aspects of a stimulus array in the search for underlying patterns or structure. Intentional learning usually results in explicit knowledge: people know something, and know they know. But students may learn some things incidentally and implicitly from the input used to deliver the explicit instruction”.

On the other hand,

“instruction can be designed to create optimal conditions for incidental learning, but that does not guarantee that incidental learning will transpire, or that if it does, the result will be implicit learning, or if it is, that implicit knowledge will be the end-product, or if it is, that it will remain implicit only”.

Long concludes that if we take the view that most students want teachers to help them to be able to use the L2 for communication, then the primary goal of teaching must be to develop implicit knowledge. Research findings on interlanguage development undermine the credibility and viability of explicit language teaching, synthetic approaches, and PPP.

Since purely incidental learning is impractical, due to the amount of input required and the length of time needed to deliver it, in  the interest of identifying the least interventionist, but still effective, forms of instruction, it follows that a major focus of ISLA research (not the only focus, but a major one) should now be on even less intrusive enhancements of incidental learning rather than focus on form.


Long, M. (2015) SLA and TBLT. Oxford, Wiley.

Long, M. (2017) Instructed second language acquisition (ISLA): geopolitics, methodological issues, and some major research questions. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

VanPatten, W. (2017) Situating instructed language acquisition: facts about second language acquisition. Instructed Second Language Acquisition, 1,1.

Where did that idea come from?

In his latest blog post, Where do ideas come from?, Harmer defends himself against an accusation of using somebody else’s work as if it were his own, although he doesn’t tell us whose work he used, or exactly what he did with it.

In a comment, Sue Leather said:

I wonder if there is something about power dynamics and gender here? A well-known male ELT person fails to acknowledge (whether by oversight or whatever) a lesser known female ELT person. If I read this correctly, this seems to be what has happened.

Replying to this, Harmer wrote in his usual clumsy style:

I do not see myself as having any power over anything – nor do any publishers I have ever worked with, for example, or conference organisers!

I believe (well that is my view of myself, but its only, of course, my view) I have been very supportive of others in the world of ELT, older and younger. If I have not, I deserve to be called out on it.

I suggest that all those who have come across Harmer during his long career as a manager, teacher trainer, examiner and conference speaker, and who have personal reasons for thinking that his conduct towards them was not best described as “very supportive” should accept his challenge and call him out on it. Meanwhile, I’d like to raise a more recent matter.

In November 2016, Eric Dostal, the founding director of CA Institute of Languages in Brno, Czech Republic, invited me to do a plenary at the International Language Symposium in Brno 2017.  He described himself as “the head of the committee”, “the person responsible for the show”; he informed me that the other invited plenary speakers were Stephen Krashen, Phillip Kerr, Linda Li, JJ Wilson, Hugh Dellar, Jeremy Harmer “and some secret surprise guests are all lined up and ready to give talks”; and he concluded:

Your name would add the spice that this event needs!

I accepted the invitation and sent Mr. Dostal outlines of possible talks I could give. He replied “It looks great!”, and that he would put my proposal to the rest of the organising committee.  On 23rd November I got an email saying:

You are in! I will keep you posted with developments. I will add you to the website and start marketing it a bit more.

I looked on the website for the conference, and there I was, alongside Krashen, Li, Wilson and others, photo, outline of plenary and all.

Then, on 23rd Jan.2017, I got this email

Dear Geoff,

Due to an over response of speaker acceptances we have had to reorganize our speaker roster for the Symposiums on 2017 and 2019. The committee has decided to shift your name to the second roster for 2019. For us this is a better fit.  I hope this does not cause any inconvenience. These are still early days.

Erik and the committee

I phoned Mr. Dostal and asked him for the truth. I said I didn’t believe that the reason for cancelling my invitation was that there was “an over response of speaker acceptances”, and challenged him to deny that pressure from one of the other speakers was the real reason.

The committee’s been got at, right? They’ve told you to get me off the guest list, haven’t they?

Mr. Dostal sounded very uncomfortable.

You’re upset, I know it’s a disappointment, I’m really sorry, I did everything I could.

So the committee insisted that I be “shifted” did they?

Well, yes.


Geoff, come on, I can’t go into details. I’m sorry.

Who’s behind this?

I can’t go into details.

And that was that. I cancelled the flights and asked him to make good the money that I’d spent on the tickets.

In July, I had a couple of emails from Mr. Dostal, repeating how sorry he was, saying how much he regretted what had happened.

I know of no conference where anything similar has happened, so my question is Where did the idea to “shift” me to the 2019 symposium come from? I’m convinced that it came from committee members who were anxious not to offend one or more of the other invited speakers. They felt pressure from someone powerful, and they put pressure on Mr. Dostal to do something that he himself felt embarrassed about doing. So my question to Harmer is this: Do you think your powerful position in the ELT industry had  anything to do with the decision to remove me from the list of guest speakers who were invited to the 2017 Brno Conference?

My Time at the LSE: Part 2

This is the continuation of My Time at LSE Part 1, which I wrote three months ago.

Note that I paid not a penny for my five years at the LSE; like everybody else in the UK at that time, if you got a place at university, your fees were paid by the government and you got a means tested grant to cover basic living expenses too. My parents were deemed rich, so I didn’t get the grant, and my dad refused to give me any money because I’d turned down the chance to go to Oxford. Anyway, I got a scholarship which matched it.

We should also note that in 1965, less than 5% of the UK population were enrolled in a university degree course. Today, those finishing a degree course in the UK find themselves in debt to the tune of around 30,000 pounds sterling, and over 35% of the population are doing a university degree course.

In 1965 I was half way through a B.Sc (Econ) degree at the London School of Economics, having made the philosophy of science my special subject. I talked a bit about the philosophy department of LSE in Part 1, and alluded to the famous confrontation between Kuhn and Popper which took place at Bedford College in July 1965. I was there, and I remember the electric, testerone-charged (no women were among the main protagonists) atmosphere which lasted from start to finish. In what follows, I rely on Steffano Gettei’s (2008) account. Quotes are from his account, but the colloquial was later reported in a 4 volume work (edited by Lakatos, I think) which he cites, which I’ve actually got somewhere in this damn room, but which for the life of me I can’t find right now.

The Debate

It was billed as The International Colloquial in the Philosophy of Science, and the provisional programme had Popper as chairman, and 2 main papers: Kuhn on Dogma versus Criticism, followed by Feyerabend (defending Popper) on Criticism versus Dogma. At the last minute Feyerabend said he couldn’t come (genuine ill health), and Watkins took his place.  The final programme was Popper as chairman and Kuhn and Watkins giving a joint paper on Criticism and the growth of Knowledge.  Lakatos had been very busy organising all this and handled the correspondence with Kuhn (furious at all the changes) with his usual cunning.

So we all trooped in and took our places in the audience. Everybody was there as they say, including Quine, who, as far as I remember, never said a word. We put up with all sorts of blather from all sorts of university big wigs and then here comes Kuhn. As the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (one of my favorite websites) says “His 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is one of the most cited academic books of all time”.  He  looked jaunty compared to Popper, but he read every word from his notes, hardly looking up.

Kuhn on Science

Kuhn starts by challenging Popper’s claim that scientists start with theories and then test them. Kuhn says scientists first assume a “constellation” of theories shared by the scientific community, and premise current theory as “the rules of the game”. Scientists try to solve puzzles, and current theory is required to define that puzzle and “to guarantee that, given sufficient brilliance, it can be solved”. Very occasionally, repeated failures to solve puzzles within the context of the paradigmatic theory leads to a revolution in science. So Popper, Kuhn says, “characterized the entire scientific enterprise in terms that apply only to its occasional revolutionary parts”; he overlooks the function of normal science, and

neither science nor the development of knowledge is likely to be understood if research is viewed exclusively through the revolutions it occasionally produces. …. A careful look at the scientific enterprise suggests that it is normal science, in which [Popper]’s sort of testing does not occur, rather than extraordinary science which most nearly distinguishes science from other enterprises”.

Next, Kuhn attacks Popper’s view that science consists of learning from our errors. Well, learning from errors can only happen in periods of normal science and Popper’s use of the term “error” to refer to theoretical systems of the past, like Newton’s mechanics, is thus wrong.


Kuhn then gets to the nitty gritty: Popper’s main idea of falsification. While Popper grants that conclusive falsification can never happen, he assumes that it can. “Having barred conclusive disproof”, says Kuhn, “he has provided no substitute for it, and the relation he does employ remains that of logical falsification”.  Logic, says Kuhn, doesn’t decide what scientists do when faced with falsifications here and there (anomalies); rather they are moved by values, and so we have to understand the history of science in terms of the sociology of the scientific community. Scientists don’t behave as Popper claims they do: they’re not influenced by individual refutations, but rather by a mass of anomalies which makes them doubt the ability of the current paradigm and switch allegiance to another paradigm that deals better with the anomalies.

The criteria with which scientists determine the validity of an articulation or an application of existing theory are not by themselves sufficient to determine the choice between competing theories.

So Popper’s mistake is to ignore the characteristics of normal research.

In particular, he has sought to solve the problem of theory choice during revolutions by logical criteria that are applicable in full only when a theory can already be presupposed,

that is, during periods of normal science when research is guided by a paradigm.

Finally, Kuhn reiterates his main thesis: explanation in science is sociological.

It must, that is, be a description of a value system, an ideology, together with an analysis of the institutions through which that system is transmitted and enforced.

While Popper rejects a sociological approach to science, his own approach has obvious signs of ideology and a system of values for science.

Counter Attack

Then came Watkins. A decent man, a decent academic, but out of his league when compared to the big guns. He later pointed me out in an identity parade which led to my arrest on criminal charges, but that’s another story. Here’s a version of his defence of Popper, which doesn’t give an indication of Popper’s typical interruptions of what he was trying to say.

Popper’s Reply

For Popper, science is always revolutionary because science involves the evolution of critical thought. Discovery of something is always a discovery against something else, because, as in the case of Christopher Columbus, it collides with a constellation of established prejudices. Copernicus overturned Ptolemy, Newton went beyond Galileo and Kepler, and Einstein beyond Newton. Such changes are not rare events but rather the usual condition of scientific activity: science grows as “a revolution in permanence”.

While there’s a need for some dogmatism (“if we give in to criticism too easily, we shall never find out where the real power of our theories lies”), this doesn’t justify Kuhn’s belief that a ruling dogma dominates over considerable periods. Right through history, we can judge theories by their openness to criticism, and if we say that any particular hypothesis in our theoretical system clashes with reality, well that is itself a conjecture, a new hypothesis that needs testing. And,of course, always the whole constellation of theories is put in question.

Now here comes the kicker, and the root of what is still the argument between rationalists and relativists.

Kuhn suggests that the rationality of science presupposes the acceptance of a common framework. He suggests that rationality depends upon something like a common language and a common set of assumptions. He suggests that rational discussion, and rational criticism, is only possible when we have agreed on fundamentals

Popper replies

“the myth of the framework” is a logical and philosophical mistake.

It is, says Popper, the argument of the relativist. While we are, necessarily in every moment prisoners caught in the framework of our language, theories, past experiences and expectations,

we are only prisoners in a Pickwickian sense: if we try, we can break out of our framework at any time. Admittedly, we shall find ourselves again in a framework, but it will be a better and roomier one; and we can at any moment break out of it again.

(Sorry, but I can’t help intervening here to say how splendid I find this.)

We can always be critical, and Kuhn’s contrary thesis (i.e. the incommensurability thesis, the idea that different frameworks are like mutually untranslatable languages) is a dangerous dogma – “the central bulwark of irrationalism”.

The “myth of the framework” exaggerates a difficulty into an impossibility; in fact these clashes are fruitful and not a dead end; they lead to progress.

Kuhn sees incommensurability as an insurmountable problem, but we only need to confront problems, not deem them insurmountable, label them incommensurable and set them aside.

Well that was it, more or less. The consensus was that Popper had won the day. I remember feeling jubilant, and leaving the hall with LSE supporters feeling similarly buoyed up. Lakatos promised to meet us in the nearest pub and didn’t show up. I don’t know what happened to Popper or Kuhn that evening, but they certainly didn’t have supper together.

I’ve given a sketch of the most important event in academic history that I ever witnessed. It was thrilling to be in the same room as such brilliant people; thrilling to feel the charged atmosphere, thrilling to follow the arguments, thrilling to feel that my side had won. But I was also very aware of all the nasty bits: the huge egos, the bitchiness, the trickery, the lack of humour. Thinking about it now, the sexism of the all male star cast is what hits me most. In the LSE philosophy department, the big shots were all men, and they relied on the work done by their research assistants who were mostly women. Shame on me, I can only remember their first names: Helen, Rosy, Ruth, Jill, Ann, Julie. None of them is mentioned in the 4 volume report.

What to make of it all? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: an evaluation of scientific theories doesn’t depend on psychological or social factors related to their authors. That this scientist was a drunk, that one paranoid, and the other believed in fairies, or that they were all locked in a laboratory and told not to come out till they’d solved the puzzle, has nothing to do with an evaluation of the theory in question.

Khun’s nightmare must be to see how his suggestion that science is governed by “paradigms” has been adopted by relativists to support some of the worst academic work to be published in the last 50 years. The sociology of science is a subject taught all over the planet, often by charlatans, and it’s led to a proliferation of obscurantist nonsense being hoisted on gullible students everywhere. As I only recently discovered, the term “paradigm” is now used extensively in MA TESL programmes to “explain” where various views of learning come from. I discuss this in my post on paradigms, and elsewhere I’ve pointed out that, unless you adopt a relativist epistemology, the sociology of science has nothing to say about how to judge the merits of competing scientific theories which try to explain the phenomena we examine. Nothing!

In the end, it’s the epistemological question that really divides Popper and Kuhn. Kuhn argues for incommensurability: it’s impossible to switch from one theory to another without a different theory of rationality. Popper believes (as do I, and as do all rationalists), in objective truth, best formulated in Tarski’s correspondence theory of truth. Scientific knowledge is seen as knowledge without a knowing subject and scientific progress is progress towards truth, that is, the growth of knowledge.

In the world of ELT, there’s a growing tendency among those of a postmodernist persuasion to abuse poor old Thomas Kuhn and to use his texts in support of their daft views. They adopt their own silly version of Kuhn’s ideas and their tilt towards relativism because they suggest “exciting” new ways of looking at language learning and teaching. But they show no signs of understanding what they’re talking about. The issue is incommensurability. It all hinges on that, it really does.

Next time: Feyerabend comes to the LSE and talks of incommensurability and cabbages and kings.


Gattei, S. (2008) Thomas Kuhn’s Linguistic Turn and the Legacy of Logical Empiricism. London, Routledge.

ELT Writers’ Manifesto

Scott Thornbury’s post this Sunday is M is for Manifesto .  At the end of the post, he gives the original 10 Commandments of Dogme, which prompts me to offer something similar for those like him who profess to tell teachers how to better do their jobs. There is a band of ELT  writers who write  books on how to teach, or how to pass exams, or coursebooks, or  books on grammar, pronunciation, how to use your mobile phone, etc., etc.. When they’re not writing, they’re touring the world doing conference appearances and giving teacher training workshops, or they’re doing much the same thing on blogs and other social media. This band includes Harmer, Thornbury, Underhill, Scrivener, Maley, Graddol, Ward, Dellar, McLoughlin, Wogan, Ur, Larsen-Freeman, Soars, Johnson, Hadfield, Mercer, Richardson, Clare, Mercer, to name but a few.


Manifesto for ELT Writers

  1. Advice on teaching should be given using only the resources that the writers bring to the task – i.e. themselves – and whatever they actually know about. If a particular piece of advice contains material that is not part of their own rescources, it may only be included by taking the intended audience to the location where that material can be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students’ club). This is perhaps the most important item of all, intended to drastically reduce the amount of hot air and general baloney currently on offer.
  2. No recordings of conference talks, workshops or training sessions should be made public unless 12 just men and women drawn from the ranks of independent teachers (i.e. not employees of the British Council, IH, Bell Schools, etc.) have certified that the recording contains at least the germ of one, half-way interesting, original idea.
  3. When addressing an audience, the writers must sit down at all times that their audiences are seated, refrain from prancing around the stage, and above all, refrain from toe-curling attempts to mingle with the audience.
  4. All the writers questions must be “real” questions (such as “Do you like grammar presentations as much as I do?” Or “How much do you think I’m getting paid for doing this talk?”), not “display” questions (such as “Is the Pearson PTE test crap?” or “Are we overpaid?”)
  5. Slavish adherence to a method (such as Dogme, the Lexical Approach, and all those recommended in Thornbury’s The CELTA Course) is unacceptable.
  6. A pre-planned book or conference talk where the content is made up of pre-selected items taken from a bank of stuff written 20 years ago is forbidden. The Larsen-Freeman Limitor restricts the use the first person singular to 10; and The Harmer Humbug Restrictor bans the use of ill-formed sentences.
  7. Topics that are of genuine interest and use to the audience must be given priority over the usual dross that writers are publishers “value” (i.e. think will make the biggest profit).
  8. Charging readers and audiences different prices for the same product is disallowed. Furthermore, punters should be given maximum access to library copies of books and recordings of sessions. As in other forms of human social interaction, the capitalist way of doing things should open to criticism, better still, proscribed.
  9. No writer will even mention testing procedures until they’ve risen above their current state of abysmal ignorance on the subject. The same goes for SLA research.
  10. Writers will be evaluated according to only one criterion: that they are not hypocritical bores.

A little knowledge ……..

Recently I got involved in a discussion with Marek Kiczkowiak, who runs the TEFL Equity blog, about the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs).  Marek replied to my comments with a post on his blog, titled “Of native speakers and other fantastic beasts”, where he argued that if any such differences existed between NSs and NNSs, they were fuzzy, ill-defined, subjective, imagined, abstract, theoretical, ideological, and refuted by as many studies as supported them. I wrote a second post replying to Marek, and in subsequent comments, I think we managed to resolve most of our differences.

A few days later, Scott Thornbury posted a late comment on Marek’s blog. This is what he said:

Hi Marek. A bit late in the day but… I suspect that Geoff insists on the NS-NNS distinction because it is absolutely central to the Chomskyan project (to which he is fervently – dare I say uncritically – committed) which presupposes an innately determined (hence genetic) language learning device which, like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period, whereafter general (i.e. non-language specific) learning abilities kick-in, accounting for the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters. If, on the other hand, you take the perfectly plausible view (e.g. argued by Michael Tomasello, Nick Ellis, and many others) that general (i.e. non-language specific) learning capacities are implicated in language acquisition from the get-go, and hence that there is no need to hypothesise either a genetically-programmed language acquisition device nor a qualitative difference between native and non-native speakers, then the whole Chomskyan enterprise collapses, taking with it the distinction between man and beasts, and leading to the end of civilization as we know it.

Thornbury’s suspicions are groundless. If “the Chomskyan project” refers to Chomsky’s theory of first language acquisition and of UG, then

  1. I’m not fervently committed to it, and
  2. the NS-NNS distinction is not absolutely central to it.

As to the first matter, you can find ample evidence to refute Thornbury’s accusation of my “fervent and uncritical commitment” to Chomsky in Jordan, 2004, and in this blog. In both places you’ll find criticism of Chomsky’s theory, of its reformulations, and of various attempts to protect it. Furthermore, I’ve consistently argued (always unsuccessfully against Kevin Gregg) that theories of SLA need pay scant regard to Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition. Thornbury concludes that, since I comment on his and other people’s misrepresentations of Chomsky’s work, I must be a brainwashed UG devotee; he’s wrong.

As to the second matter, pace Thornbury, Chomsky’s theory of L1 acquisition does not presuppose that the LAD, “like milk teeth, can only be available for a very limited period”, and furthermore, any such putative restriction has absolutely nothing to do with his main concern – the description of UG.

Hence, Thornbury is wrong about the motivation for my insistence on the NS-NNS distinction and wrong about its having an “absolutely central” place in “the Chomskyan project”. Thornbury’s mistakes stem from confusion about what Chomsky’s theory of language acquisition actually says, and confusion about what the so-called “critical period” in language acquisition refers to; his comments suggest that the enormous body of research on sensitive periods in SLA is the work of followers of the Chomskyan project, all bent on proving that the less than ‘native-like’ proficiency levels attained by late-starters is a result of their being deprived access to the LAD.  This is obvious nonsense.

In studies of first language acquisition, the issue of a critical period was introduced by Lenneberg in 1967. The issue of sensitive periods in SLA also became a major issue, and remains so today. In order to get the background to the issue of sensitive periods in SLA, we need to return for a moment to Chomsky. How does UG relate to SLA?  There are four main hypotheses:

  1. There is no such thing as UG.
  2. UG exists, but second language learners only have indirect access to it via the L1.
  3. UG exists, but L2 learners only have partial access to it.
  4. Second language learners have full access to UG.

Hypothesis 1 Those who deny the existence of UG see no need to postulate a LAD, and no need to look for linguistic universals either. Thornbury is a fellow-traveller in the emergentist camp which rejects UG and we’ll look at his views in a moment. We might put the important work of O’Grady (see, for example, O’Grady, 2011) in a slightly different camp, since, while he rejects UG, he argues for the need to recognise the existence of innately guided learning of some sort.

Hypothesis 2  The best-known hypothesis regarding the second position is Bley-Vroman’s Fundamental Difference Hypothesis (Bley-Vroman, 1989a, 1989b). Brey-Vronan argues that the mind is modular, and that there exists a language faculty (UG) which is essential for the development of L1, but that UG is not directly at work in SLA.  According to Bley-Vroman, adult second language learners do not have direct access to UG; what they know of universals is constructed through their L1, and they then have to use general problem-solving abilities, such as those that operate in non-modular learning tasks: hypothesis testing, inductive and deductive reasoning, analogy, etc. The Bley-Vroman approach provides an explanation for the “poverty of the stimulus” problem of SLA – the complex L2 knowledge or interlanguage grammar which second language learners develop is (partly) a result of UG’s influence on L1.

Hypothesis 3  The partial access view claims that L2 learners have access to principles but not to the full range of parameters. Schacter (1988) and Clahsen (1987, 1988) have argued this case.  It differs from the “indirect access” position in that it predicts that no evidence of “wild grammars” will be found, and that L2 learners will not reset the values of parameters of the L2 when these differ from the L1 settings.

Hypothesis 4  The full access hypothesis claims that UG is an important causal factor in SLA, although not, of course, the only one. Those adopting the full access view (e.g., Flynn, 1987) claim more than that the L1 UG affects the second language learning process.  They claim that principles not applicable to the second language learner’s L1, but needed for the L2, will constrain the L2 learner’s interlanguage.

The work of the SLA scholars mentioned above indicates the diversity of their views regarding the importance of Chomsky’s work, but we may note that none of them gives any credence to the “milk teeth” view proffered by Thornbury.

When it comes to the issue of the so-called “critical period” in SLA, Long concludes that there are maturational constraints on 1) phonology, 2) lexis and collocation, and 3) morphology and syntax, in that order.

“Research findings suggest closure of sensitive periods for the acquisition of native-like phonology as early as age 4-6 for most people, of the lexicon, somewhere between 6 and 10, and of morphology and syntax by the mid-teens” (Long, 2015, p.39).

Whether or not they’re helped by any special genetic endowment, most children successfully learn their L1 from birth to age 6 incidentally and implicitly, without attention or awareness, suggesting that humans are biologically disposed to learning languages efficiently early in life.  After age 16, let’s say, learning a second language is more difficult; most people don’t reach an advanced level of proficiency, and very few cases (if any) have been found of across-the-board native-like attainment by a late starter. As Long (2015) points out, if there were no maturational constraints, then you’d expect to find very large numbers of adult learners who achieve native-like ability and pass all the tests to which researchers subject them; but you don’t actually find any such thing.

Thornbury misrepresents me, misrepresents Chomsky’s theory, misunderstands work on sensitive periods in SLA, and even misrepresents the views of emergentists.  Taking the view that “general learning capacities” explain language acquisition doesn’t imply, as he claims, that there’s no difference between native and non-native speakers (there manifestly is a difference as I’ve already argued in my 2 posts replying to Marek), or that there are no such thing as sensitive periods in SLA.

To summarise:

  • A body of research over 50 years confirms the view that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is rarely, if ever, attained by adult learners. The research doesn’t rely on a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.
  • There is wide acceptance among SLA scholars that there are maturational constraints on SLA. Again, this doesn’t stem from a commitment to “the Chomskyan project”.

PART 2  

Marek replied to Thornbury’s comment with this:

That would definitely clarify a lot about his insistence that there is a clear, objective and fixed division between the two groups. I have a feeling that this is crucial to the whole SLA enterprise, really, since a lot of it is based on comparing learners’ interlanguage and progress to the ‘native speaker’. Unless you assume that all ‘native speakers’ have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to (and unless you assume that we know exactly who a ‘native speaker’ is), you can’t really do much SLA research. I do find it a bit strange, though, that in SLA the ‘native speaker’ is treated as the ultimate language learning goal (even though that ‘native speaker’ never learned their L1), but at the same time you fiercely defend the proposition that this goal can never be achieved. And as you point out, the ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers, is really the Chomskean NS, the idealised speaker-hearer. Have you read Evans’ “The language myth. Why language is not an instinct”? Very good book. Quite an eye-opener. Chomsky’s ideas have dominated linguistics for such a long time that it’s quite difficult to hear any voices of dissent, even though there are many. So a very refreshing take. Thanks for commenting!

I was sorry to see how enthusiastically Marek welcomed Thornbury’s “clarification”. There are several points to be made here.

  1. I didn’t insist that there is a fixed division between NSs and NNSs.
  2. SLA researchers measure learners’ progress in various ways – as do teachers. I don’t think this is “clarified” by Thornbury’s comments.
  3. You don’t have to assume that “all native speakers have one unique proficiency that students’ language should be compared to” to do SLA research. If Thornbury’s comments led Marek to think so, then here they’ve done less than nothing to clarify the matter.
  4. The ‘native speaker’ as used by many SLA researchers is not the Chomskean NS. Chomsky studies linguistic competence independently of language use by asking native speakers to engage in introspection and make grammaticality judgments.
  5. Evan’s “The Language Myth” has been heavily criticised for its misinterpretation of Chomsky’s work, and not just by “Chomskyans”.

Here’s Scotts reply:

Thanks, Marek. Yes, I have read Evans. I’d also recommend Christiansen & Chater (2016) ‘Creating Language: Integrating Acquisition, evolution and processing’, which offers a coherent and research-informed riposte to what they call ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy. ’…. Also worth looking at is Diane Larsen-Freeman’s chapter in Han & Tarone (2014) ‘Interlanguage: 40 years later’, in which she quotes Heidi Byrnes (2014) to the effect:  ‘In what has been called the “bilingual turn” in language studies, authors find fault with (1) the undue weight being given to an accident of birth and a concomitant denial of the effects of history, culture and societal use; (2) the undisputed authority and legitimacy in representing and arbitrating standards of form and use enjoyed by native speakers; and (3) the troubling disregard of current social, political and cultural realities of multilingualism and ever-changing forms of hybridity between multiple languages as learners adopt and adapt various identities in diverse circumstances of life’.

‘The undue weight being given to an accident of birth’ would seem to be part and parcel of ‘Chomsky’s hidden legacy’.

And that’s that: Chomsky done and dusted!

Thornbury’s remarks lead me to suspect that he is a fervent – and dare I say uncritical – Chomsky basher, who dismisses Chomsky’s work without having made enough effort to seriously and honestly appraise it. And he’s not alone: there’s a growing band of such Chomsky bashers who reject UG and portray Chomsky as a right-wing establishment figure blocking progress. Comments by Russ Mayne come to mind, as does Silvana Richardson’s suggestion in her much applauded 2016 IATEFL plenary that UG theory is ideologically biased in such a way that it has contributed to discrimination against NNESTs. I should add that Thornbury’s last remark, his sage endorsement of the preposterous assertion about “an accident of birth”, strikes me as particularly shoddy, even if it is second hand.

What has Thornbury actually said about Chomsky and about theories of SLA which reject the poverty of the stimulus argument? In his A to Z of ELT we find P is for Poverty of the Stimulus. Here’s a summary of the main arguments:

  1. The quantity and quality of language input that children get is so great as to question Chomsky’s poverty of the stimulus argument.
  2. An alternative to Chomsky’s view of language and language learning, is that “language is acquired, stored and used as meaningful constructions (or ‘syntax-semantics mappings’).”
  3. Everett is right to point out that since no one has proved that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, “talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation”.

Regarding the third point, I pointed out that Everett (in one of the most roundly criticised books on Chomsky published in the last 10 years) demands the impossible: one cannot prove that the poverty of the stimulus argument is correct, so his argument has no force. But Thornbury still didn’t get it.

Anyone who claims that children’s knowledge about an aspect of syntax could not have been acquired from language input has to prove that it couldn’t. Otherwise it remains another empirically-empty assertion, he insisted.

Such ignorance of basic logic and research methods is surely worthy of note.  Another sign of the limitations of Thornbury’s knowledge came when he reacted with total disbelief to my suggestion that Chomsky’s theory of UG had a long and thorough history of empirical research.

What!!? Where? When? Who?, he demanded to know.

Rejecting the poverty of the stimulus argument, Thornbury wrote:

Actually, the stimulus is quite enough to explain everything children know about language. Corpus studies suggest that everything a child needs is in place.

Asked how these corpus studies explain what children know about language, Thornbury replied:

the child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input…… a little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized.

Pressed to say a bit more about this process, Thornbury said:

If we generalize the findings (of corpus studies) beyond the single word level to constructions….. and then..… generalize from constructions to grammar…, hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

He didn’t explain what grammar he was referring to; or what findings beyond the single word level he was talking about; or how you generalise these findings to “constructions”; or how you generalise from constructions to grammar.

Thornbury’s view of language learning leans on various emergentist sources, including Larsen-Freeman, whose work I’ve discussed elsewhere. While he now refers to the more respectable works of Tomasello and Nick Ellis, Thornbury’s attempts to explain his own view remain vague and unconvincing, never rising much above the level of the claim that “general learning processes” going on inside “feverish young brains” that are “mightily disposed to mine the input” are enough to provide a theory of language acquisition.

In a 2009 article called “Slow Release Grammar”, Thornbury argues that emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development, that it explains language, language learning, the failure of classroom-based adult ELT, and the deficiencies of current syllabus design. In relation to language learning, he adopts Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level which is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used to support the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”. But, hold on; Thornbury had previously told  us that many formulaic chunks

yield little or no generalisable grammar.

This must surely impede their wonderous ability to

slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin.

Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess? The article goes on to misrepresent emergentism by using Michael Hoey as its spokesman and making unwarranted claims about how lexical chunks explain English grammar.

Thornbury often says that emergentism gets crucial support from the study of corpora, but he fails to explain how we can infer from patterns found in corpora to how people think and learn. The assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of “frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to” must be supported by arguments about the learning process and by empirical evidence of such learning. There’s lots of work in progress (although Thornbury has never given a clear account of any of it), but to date it seems that the assertion is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story. At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that emergentism faces severe challenges as a theory. Among them are these:

  • General conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment don’t explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate.
  • Emergentists can’t explain cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure, including knowledge of what is not possible.
  • As Gregg points out, the claim that language is a complex dynamical system makes no sense.

Simply put, there is no such entity as language such that it could be a system, dynamical or otherwise……. Terms like ‘language’ and ‘English’ are abstractions; abstract terms, like metaphors, are essential for normal communication and expression of ideas, but that does not mean they refer to actual entities. English speakers exist, and (I think) English grammars come to exist in the minds/brains of those speakers, so it remains within the realm of possibility that a set of speakers is a dynamical system, or that the acquisition process is; but not language, and not a language (Gregg, 2010).


Thornbury teaches an SLA course in an MA programme at a New York university. One can only hope that during the course his pronouncements on Chomsky and on emergentism  are better-informed and more critically acute than those found in his conference talks, contributions to blogs, and published work. Thousands of fervent followers, committed to his view of ELT, deserve better.


For more discussion of Thornbury’s view of language learning, see

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989a) What is the logical problem of foreign language learning?  In  Gass, S. and Schachter, J. (eds.), Linguistic perspectives on second language acquisition, 41-48. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bley-Vroman, R. (1989b) The logical problem of foreign language learning. Linguistic Analysis  20:1-2; 3-49.

Clahsen, H. (1987) Connecting theories of language processing and (second) language acquisition. In Pfaff, C. (ed.) First and second language acquisition processes. 103-116. Newbury House, Cambridge, Mass.

Clahsen, H. (1988) Critical phases of grammar development: a study of the acquisition of negation in children and adults.  In Jordens, P and Lalleman, J. (eds.) Language development. 123-48. Foris, Dordrecht.

Evans, V. (2014) The Language Myth: Why Language is Not an Instinct. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Flynn, S. (1987) A parameter-setting model of L2 acquisition. Dordecht: Reidel.

Gregg, K.R. (2010) Shallow draughts: Larsen-Freeman and Cameron on complexity. Second Language Research, 26(4), 549 – 560.

Jordan, G. (2004) Theory Construction in SLA. Amsterdam, Benjamins.

Lenneberg, E.H. (1967) Biological Foundations of Language. Wiley.

Long, M. (2015) Second Language Acquisition and Task-Based Language Teaching. Wiley.

O’Grady, W. (2011) How Children Learn Language. CUP.

Pope, A.  (17o9) An Essay on Criticism. 

Thornbury, S. (2009) Slow Release Grammar. English Teaching Professional.


Of native speaker denial

In reply to Marek Kiczkowiak’s tweets, where he questioned the distinction made in academic literature between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NNSs), I asserted that there is a clear, measurable difference between them. Kiczkowiak has just replied, insisting that no such difference exists. Let me state my case a bit more fully.

Native speakers of language X are those for whom language X is the language they learnt through primary socialization in early childhood, as a first language. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs or NNSs because people vary, but there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to. For the last 60 years, the term “native speaker” has been used in the literature concerning studies of language learning, and one of the most studied phenomenon of all is the failure of the vast majority of postadolescent L2 learners to achieve what Birdsong (2009) refers to as “nativelike attainment”.

On the prevailing view of ultimate attainment in second language acquisition, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners. There are few exceptions to this generalization (Birdsong 1992).

Note that claims concerning the relative abilities of these two groups are of general patterns, thus not disconfirmed by individual cases. The claims, nevertheless, all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs, and the psychological reality of native speakerness. The specific claim that very few postadolescent L2 learners attain nativelike proficiency is supported by a great deal of empirical evidence (see, e.g., reviews by Long 2007, Harley and Wang 1995; Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson 2003; Patkowski 1994).

As I said in my last post, the psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. When monolingual speakers are presented with recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?

When trying to explain why most L2 learners don’t attain native competence, scholars have investigated various “sensitive periods”. It’s widely accepted that there is a period of peak sensitivity which lasts from from birth until approx. age six (see, e.g., Hyltenstam,  1992;  Meisel,  2009;  Morford  and  Mayberry, 2000).

There follows an offset, perhaps lasting five or six more years where the acquisition of native-like phonology, lexis and collocations is concerned, and until the mid-teens for grammar, during which progressively fewer learners will achieve native-like abilities. After closure of the Sensitive Periods, a small minority of learners may achieve near-native abilities, and a tiny group may be able to pass for native on a few areas and/or tightly constrained tasks (e.g. Donaldson, 2011; Marinova-Todd, 2003; van Boxtel, 2005), but no-one will be able to achieve native-like abilities across the board. …….

Native-like pronunciation of an L2 or dialect is most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an age of onset (AO) between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO occurring during the offset period from 6 to 12; and impossible for anyone with an AO later than 12. ….

 Native-like morphology and syntax are most likely (not guaranteed) for those with an AO between 0 and 6 years; still possible, but decreasingly likely, with an AO during the slightly longer offset period from 6 to the mid-teens (15, plus or minus two); and impossible for anyone with an AO later than that. Beyond age 16 or 17, the degree of grammatical accentedness will, again, depend on such factors as L1 and L2 exposure and use, language aptitude, motivation, and metalinguistic knowledge, and so will only be indirectly and weakly related to AO.

The position for lexis and collocational abilities is less clear, chiefly due to the scarcity of studies to date. However, such research findings as there are suggest that acquisition in this domain, too, is subject to maturational constraints. (Granena & Long, 2013).

When I refer to the difference between NSs and NNSs, I refer to it in the context of this area of research, where the difference is clear, operational, and the focus of an enormous amount of empirical research. Attempts to explain the phenomenon of non-nativelike attainment by most L2 learners are ongoing and there are still lively debates about putative sensitive periods, but the phenomenon itself is, pace Kiczkowiak, surely worthy of more research.

Which brings me to Kiczkowiak’ criticisms.

Argument 1

Kiczkowiak refers to “studies which shed serious doubts on Sorace’s findings” (about grammaticality judgements ).

For example, Birdsong (1992, 2004), Bialystok (1997) and Davies (2001) also studied judgments of grammaticality and all concluded that statistically there was no significant difference in the judgments made by ‘native’ and proficient ‘non-native speakers’. In other words, both groups have very similar intuitions about the language. And it is important to add that they all focused on adult learners who were well past the critical or sensitive period.

Three points:

  1. The three sources Kiczkowiak cites all accept the distinction between NSs and NNSs.
  2. As noted above, Birdsong states that, with few exceptions, native competence cannot be achieved by postpubertal learners, an assertion that Bialystock agrees with.
  3. The different findings on grammaticality judgements say nothing about findings regarding pronunciation, morphology or lexis and collocation. They don’t, that is, seriously challenge the claim that few, if any NNSs achieve native-like abilities across the board. Nor does it argue against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 2

Next, Kiczkowiak tackles the question of critical/sensitive period. He refers again to the studies on grammaticality  and says

they show that ultimate attainment is possible even for adult learners.

What they actually show is that a few NNSs perform as well as NSs on such tests. This doesn’t refute the claims I refer to above, nor, again, is it an argument against the distinction between the two groups.

Argument 3

Kiczkowiak says

there all those ‘non-native speakers’ out there who are virtually indistinguishable from a ‘native speaker’.

True, there are some NNSs who are “virtually indistinguishable” from NSs, but, once again, it doesn’t support the argument that the distinction between the two groups is “imaginary”.

And just by the way, Kiczkowiak’s example of the wonderful writer Conrad ignores the fact that Conrad had a noteable NNS accent when speaking English.

Argument 4

Kiczkowiak then quotes Hyltenstam and Abrahamsson (2003, p.580)

the highly successful L2 speakers that we have characterised as having reached ‘only’ near-native proficiency are, in fact, native-like in all contexts except perhaps in the laboratory of the linguist with specific interest in second language learning mechanisms.

That some L2 speakers achieve such high levels of proficiency is a caveat which doesn’t alter the conclusion that

nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners

and, anyway, yet again, it’s not an argument that the distinction between NSs and NNSs doesn’t exist.

Kiczkowiak concludes:

So linguistically speaking, is there a difference between the two groups? There might well be. And the word MIGHT is important here.

He’s quite simply wrong: there IS a well-established difference; no “might” about it.

Still, Kiczkowiak’s main argument is this:

…we need to look beyond language proficiency as the defining characteristic of a ‘native speaker’. In fact, it is quite ironic that in the opening sentence of his blog post Geoff calls Russ Mayne (Evidence-based EFL) a “cheery cherry-picker of evidence”, when he himself has cheerfully cherry-picked the evidence limiting the discussion to SLA research, completely ignoring wider sociocultural issues that are also at play…. So I’m not saying the evidence Geoff presented is wrong. However, it is very limited. And thus questionable.

I didn’t cherry pick evidence. I limited the discussion to SLA research, and in particular, to psycholinguistic research that adopts a rationalist methodology based on the twin principles of logical argument and empirical evidence, because that’s where, in my opinion, the best work is being done to understand second language learning. In this necessarily limited domain, the distinction between NSs and NNSs is a real one, which is all I’ve ever claimed in this debate.

But Kiczkowiak wants to question this limited approach. He says:

As Block (2003, p.4) says, SLA has for a long time dealt with “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”. Who the ‘native’ or the ‘non-native speaker’ under study really is has very rarely been problematised in SLA. However, Block’s (and others’) calls for a more socioculturally oriented SLA have largely fallen on deaf ears.

The possible reason for this is exemplified really well by one of Geoff’s Tweets where he referred to what I’m planning to engage in the rest of the post as “sociolinguistic twaddle that obfuscates a simple psychological reality”. But wouldn’t the reverse hold true as well? Namely, that the psycholinguistic twaddle obfuscates a rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality?

Well, no, it wouldn’t. While psycholinguistic research has led to a better understanding of the well-defined phenomena investigated, sociolinguistic research has had less success. What is this “rather complicated, but also incredibly fascinating sociolinguistic reality” that Kiczkowiak refers to? The only source he cites is Block. What “reality” does Block describe? How does it help us to understand language learning? What does Block’s description of SLA research mean? What are “essentialized interlocutors, with essentialized identities, who speak essentialized language”? I suggest that Block’s description of SLA research, and indeed the whole of his published work on second language learning, does little to persuade anybody that a more socioculturally oriented SLA is needed. There are, of course, better advocates for a sociolinguistic approach to language learning than Block, but even if Kiczkowiak had given a better account of such an approach, it would do nothing to rescue his denial of a clear difference between NSs and NNSs.

The clearly-defined difference between NSs and NNSs is useful when studying SLA. This has absolutely no implications for the fitness of NNSs as teachers, and I support those who argue reasonably for an end to the absurd demand that teachers in ELT be native speakers. The fight against discrimination against NNSs isn’t helped by Kiczkowiak’s unnecessary denial of a difference between NSs and NNSs.


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There is a difference between Native Speakers and Non Native Speakers

A few days ago, that cheery cherry-picker of evidence, Russ Mayne, retwittered this gem from Adrian Holliday:

I no longer review research that compares ‘native’ and ‘non-native speaker’ teachers as though the groups are real and not imagined.

I replied

I think Dr. Johnson’s reply to Berkley will do here: Kick Holliday in the shin and say “I refute you thus”.

As usual, nobody took any notice of my smart alec reply, and Holliday’s tweet has so far got 44 “Likes” and has been re-tweeted 26 times. It provoked Marek Kiczkowiak, he of TEFL Equity Advocates, to say:

I’d also question whether we know what a NS is and what essentially makes them different from a NNS. Clear cut definition difficult I think.


Also questionable why learner’s progress should be compared to or rated by a NS, e.g. raters in pron research mostly NS


By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species, each with a set of immutable characteristics

I made a few comments on these tweets and promised to reply on this blog with my reasons for stating that pace Holliday and Kiczkowiak, there’s good reason to distinguish between native speakers (NSs) and non-native speakers (NSSs). Here they are. My thanks, once again, to Mike Long.

The psychological reality of native speakerness is easily demonstrated by the fact that we know one, and who isn’t one, when we meet them, often on the basis of just a few utterances. On a more objective level, when monolingual speakers are presented with (even very short) recorded stretches of speech by a large pool of NSs and NNs and asked to say which are which, the judges are always very good at distinguishing them, with inter-rater reliability typically above .9. How do they do this, and why is there so much agreement if there is no such thing as a NS?

What distinguishes them has been well documented in over 100 published empirical studies in the literature on age effects and maturational constraints. There is no fixed set of liguistic features or abilities that define all NSs, or all NNSs, of course – for the simple reason that people vary. However, there are clear, easily recognized, departures from the norms that speakers of any particular repertoire adhere to.

For good examples of the numerous studies comparing NSs and NNSs, we may consider Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) and Granena & Long (2013).

If we take Abrahamsson & Hyltenstam (2009) first, we may note what they say at the start:

… what appears to be more compelling evidence for adult-learner nativelikeness can be found in studies that have focused exclusively on late, high-proficiency L2 speakers who have been preselected, or screened, for potentially nativelike verbal behavior. Characteristic of these studies is that they have employed quite sophisticated techniques for linguistic scrutiny, either through (a) great stringency and detail of the analyses, (b) demanding tests and tasks (e.g., through the choice of unusual target-language structures that are known to be difficult for learners), and/or (c) the use of multiple-task designs covering various linguistic domains rather than one or a few isolated structures, phenomena, or domains. These methodological features will be illustrated next through a review of a sample of studies.

and at the end

Our primary interpretation of the results is that nativelike ultimate attainment of a second language is, in principle, never attained by adult learners and, furthermore, is much less common among child learners than has previously been assumed.

Here’s the conclusion from Granena & Long (2013). Note that “SP” refers to “Sensitive Periods” (sometimes referred to as “Critical Periods”) and “AO” refers to “Age of Onset”.

The evidence from this study, plus findings from previous research by others, leads to the conclusion that there is an SP for phonology, its offset beginning at age six, and possibly earlier (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than five, and larger mean differences between the groups), probably closing by age 12. There is an SP for lexis and collocations, its offset beginning around age six (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than age nine, and larger mean differences between groups), probably closing between ages nine and 12, earlier than the SP for morphology and syntax. There is an SP for morphology and syntax (in this study, no native-like L2 learners with an AO later than 12, and larger mean differences between groups), its off-set beginning at age six, and closing in the mid-teens.

 Unlike phonology and grammar, lexical and collocational knowledge continues to develop throughout the life-span in both NSs and NNSs, but with explicit learning playing an increasingly important role, as the human capacity for implicit learning, especially for implicit item learning, gradually declines with age. It is for that reason that language aptitude can play a mitigating role, modifying the negative effects of increasing AO and age in general, in the lexical and collocational domain.

Just to deal with Kiczkowiak’s assertion

By constantly comparing NS and NNS we perpetuate the idea that they’re two different species,each with a set of immutable characteristics

No-one has ever suggested such a thing. NSs continue to add bibs and bobs to their repertoire throughout their lives (most obviously, but not only, lexis and collocations), and often lose stuff with increasing senility or after a brain injury. NNSs obviously do the same. Not different species, but measurably different.

NSs and NNSs are measurably different. I rest my case.


Abrahamsson, N., & Hyltenstam, K. (2009). Age of onset and nativelikeness in a second language: Listener perception versus linguistic scrutiny. Language Learning 59, 249-306.

Granena, G., & Long, M. H. (2013). Age of onset, length of residence, language aptitude, and ultimate L2 attainment in three linguistic domains. Second Language Research 29, 3, 311-343.

Treatise on Thornbury’s view of SLA with apologies to Wittgenstein

Wittgenstein’s Tractatus used an austere literary style containing no arguments as such, just declarative statements that are meant to be self-evident. I borrow from his style to present this criticism of Thornbury’s views on language learning.

The best way to explain the phenomena we want to understand is to propose an explanatory theory or hypothesis which is open to empirical tests of its veracity.

If tides is the phenomenon, one theory that explains it is gravity (tides are caused mostly by a differential gravitational force). If L1 acquistion is the phenomenon, one theory is UG (humans’ brains are hard wired for language).

We won’t ever prove that any general theory is true, because you can’t go from the particular to the general.

Just because the sun has always been observed to rise in the East and set in the West doesn’t prove that the theory which explains it is true, or assure us that the sun will rise in the East tomorrow.

If the sun doesn’t rise in the East tomorrow, then we’ll have evidence that the theory which predicted it would is false. If it does, we can hold on to the theory: it’s the best explanation so far.

So while we can’t prove theories are true, we can prove that they’re false, by finding data that contradict them.

If we find movements of tides that contradict the theory of gravity (e.g., the moon is furthest away from point X on earth when the tide is highest), or the theory of UG (e.g., language X doesn’t have UG principle Y, or child X has no knowledge of this principle) then the theory is falsified.

Attempts can be made to rescue theories from falsifying data.

In order to test theories, they need to be open to empirical (replicable) tests, and we need to use logic and criteria of rational argument (coherence and cohesion).

This provides a rough guide to how to evaluate conflicting explanations of how people learn languages.

How does Thornbury evaluate conflicting explanations of how people learn languages?

In reply to Chomsky’s Poverty of the Stimulus argument (children know things about language that can’t be inferred from the input they get) Thornbury says

you have to prove that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input… otherwise it’s an ’empirically-empty’ assertion.

To support this assertion he cites Daniel Everett (2012) who writes

No one has proven that the poverty of the stimulus argument, or Plato’s Problem, is wrong. But nor has anyone shown that it is correct either. The task is daunting if anyone ever takes it up. One would have to show that language cannot be learned from available data. No one has done this. But until someone does, talk of a universal grammar or language instinct is no more than speculation.

Thornbury demands the impossible and the demand shows an elementary fault in logic.

Rather than demand proof that aspects of syntax couldn’t have been acquired from input (a logically impossible demand), it’s his task to come up with counter evidence.

Needless to say, the daft quote from Everett, whose work is now thoroughly discredited (as even Thornbury has recognised), suffers from the same fatal weakness.

This is not, I insist, a silly semantic quibble: Thornbury’s demand for proof of what can’t be proved here is an indication that his criticism is illogical. I repeat: illogical.

In the same discussion Thornbury says Surely the onus of proof is on the nativists … to show that the stimulus is impoverished?.

Again we have the “proof” thing. That aside, it’s certainly reasonable to ask the nativists to provide evidence to support their theory, and in fact the nativists give a shedload of evidence to support their claim that the stimulus doesn’t explain what children know about language.

Recall Thornbury’s reaction to my reply to Russ Mayne’s ridiculous remark Chomsky spurned empirical research.  I said: Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research. Thornbury replied: “Chomsky’s theory of UG has a long and thorough history of empirical research”. What!!? Where? When? Who? This suggests that Thornbury has a very poor grasp of Chomsky’s work.

Given that his formal criticisms of UG is illogical, and given that he fails to appreciate how the theory is supported, the remaining question is: Does Thornbury show that the stimulus is, pace Chomsky, enough to explain language learning?

No, he doesn’t.

Thornbury has indicated here and there that he’s drawn to emergentist theories of language learning, but his attempts to make sense of emergentist arguments are hopeless.

Thornbury supports the fanciful, sweeping clap trap proposed by Larsen-Freeman, and shows about as much critical acumen when talking about emergentism as he does when talking about Chomsky.

Various scholars have been working on connectionist views and associative learning for over 30 years now.

Nick Ellis, and MacWhinney, for example, believe that the complexity of language emerges from relatively simple developmental processes being exposed to a massive and complex environment.

MacWhinney’s Competition Model is a good example of an emergentist approach which rejects the nativist UG account of language and puts forward what Gregg (2003) calls an “empiricist emergentist” approach.

Gregg thinks that empiricist emergentism has been most forcefully and accurately advocated in a series of articles by Nick Ellis (e.g., Ellis; 1998; 1999; 2002a; 2002b; 2003) (Gregg, 2003: 43).

William O’Grady and his associates have been working for many years now on an alternative emergentist view that Gregg calls “nativist emergentism”.  O’Grady argues that the case for emergentism, but says that the need for certain types of innate concepts are required as all approaches to cognition recognize the existence of innately guided learning of some sort, and that there is a significant place for frequency in explanatory work on language but that its effects are modulated by an efficiency-driven processor.

Gregg gives this summary of UG versus emergentism:

“So the lines are drawn: On the one hand, we have mad dog nativist theories which posit a rich, innate representational system specific to the language faculty, and non-associative mechanisms, as well as associative ones, for bringing that system to bear on input to create an L2 grammar. On the other hand, we have the emergentist position, which denies both the innateness of linguistic representations (Chomsky modularity) and the domain-specificity of language learning mechanisms (Fodor-modularity (Gregg, 2003: 46).

Gregg says that at the root of the problem of any empiricist account is the poverty of the stimulus argument. Emergentists, by adopting an associative learning model and an empiricist epistemology (where some kind of innate architecture is allowed, but not innate knowledge, and certainly not innate linguistic representations) have a very difficult job explaining how children come to have the linguistic knowledge they do.

  • How can general conceptual representations acting on stimuli from the environment explain the representational system of language that children demonstrate?
  • How come children know which form-function pairings are possible in human-language grammars and which are not, regardless of exposure?
  • How can emergentists deal with cases of instantaneous learning, or knowledge that comes about in the absence of exposure (i.e., a frequency of zero) including knowledge of what is not possible ? (Eubank and Gregg, 2002: 238)

How does Thornbury argue the case for emergentism?

Nowhere does he give any well-argued reply to the problems alluded to above; nowhere does he recognise the huge differences between the works of Nick Ellis and Larsen-Freeman, let alone discuss O’Grady; and nowhere does he give any coherent account of his own emergentist theory.

That’s what he doesn’t do, but what does he say? He says things like this:

The child’s brain is mightily disposed to mine the input. A little stimulus goes a long way, especially when the child is so feverishly in need of both communicating and becoming socialized. General learning processes explain the rest.

If we generalize the findings beyond the single word level to constructions and then generalize from constructions to grammar, then hey presto, the grammar emerges on the back of the frequent constructions.

(This is a paraphrase of a previous post.)

In an article he wrote in 2009 for English Teaching Professional called Slow Release Grammar Thornbury says:

  • emergence improves on Darwin as an explanation of natural development
  • it explains language, language learning, and the failure of classroom-based adult ELT
  • emergence is also the key to successful syllabus design.

This is his argument:

Emergence is everywhere in nature, where a system is said to have emergent properties when it displays complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level. There are millions of such systems; the capacity of an ant colony to react in unison to a threat is an example. Because there is no “central executive” determining the emergent organisation of the system, the patterns and regularities which result have been characterised as “order for free”. Pure Larsen-Freeman.

Language exhibits emergent properties.

There are 2 processes by which language “grows and organises itself”.

The first is our capacity to detect and remember frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to. In language terms, these sequences typically take the form of chunks (AKA formulaic expressions or lexical phrases).

The second is our capacity to unpack the regularities within these chunks, and to use these patterns as templates for the later development of a more systematic grammar.

It is as if the chunks – memorised initially as unanalysed wholes – slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Language emerges as “grammar for free”.

Thirdly, there is emergence in learning. Hoey notes how particular words and chunks re-occur in the same patterns. These can be seen in collocations, such as good morning; good clean fun; on a good day …; fixed phrases, such as one good turn deserves another, the good, the bad and the ugly; and colligations, as in it’s no good + -ing.

Hoey argues that, through repeated use and association, words are ‘primed’ to occur in predictable combinations and contexts. The accumulation of lexical priming creates semantic associations and colligations which, in Hoey’s words, nest and combine and give rise to an incomplete, inconsistent and leaky, but nevertheless workable, grammatical system.

Fourthly, the problems which adults have remembering and unpacking formulaic chunks don’t find their solution in most ELT classrooms where few opportunities for real communication are offered.

Wray says: Classroom learners are rarely aiming to communicate a genuine message…, so there is no drive to use formulaic sequences for manipulative purposes.

Even when adult learners do internalise formulaic chunks, they are often incapable of unpacking the grammar, perhaps because many chunks are not really grammatical (expressions like if I were you; you’d better not; by and large; come what may, etc, yield little or no generalisable grammar) and perhaps because they fail to notice the form.

Finally, we can put emergence into the classroom through the syllabus.

If the productive potential of formulaic language is to be optimised, at least four conditions need to prevail:

  • Exposure – to a rich diet of formulaic language
  • Focus on form – to promote noticing and pattern extraction
  • A positive social dynamic – to encourage pragmatic and interpersonal language use
  • Opportunities for use – to increase automaticity, and to stimulate storage in long-term memory, and recall.

If we examine the above, we note that Thornbury starts with Stuart Kauffman’s claim that the phenomenon whereby certain natural systems display complexity at a global level that is not specified at a local level is evidence of emergence and “order for free”. This highly-controversial view is then used in an attempt to add credibility to the suggestion that lexical chunks provide “grammar for free”.

Thornbury tells us that many formulaic chunks yield little or no generalisable grammar, which surely must impede their wonderous ability to slowly release their internal structure like slow-release pain-killers release aspirin. Or does their magic extend to releasing qualities which they don’t possess?

Thornbury gives an inadequate and mangled account of emergentism which, according to him, says that lexical phrases explain English grammar, how children learn English and why adults have difficulties learning English as a foreign language.

Thornbury’s unqualified assertion that language learning can be explained as the detection and memorisation of frequently-occurring sequences in the sensory data we are exposed to is probably wrong and certainly not the whole story.

At the very least, Thornbury should give a more measured description and discussion of emergentist views of language learning and acknowledge that it faces severe challenges as a theory.

Last, and maybe least, we get Thornbury’s depressing picture of the arid desert which is the standard adult EFL classroom followed by the triumphant portrayal of an emergentist syllabus, where the “productive potential” of formulaic language is unleashed.

The illusive, definitive recipe of language learning has been revealed: lashings of formulaic language, sprinkled with a little focus on form, served on a bed of positive social dynamic, with the chance of asking for more.

In the likely event that the positive social dynamic gets out of hand in these joyous classrooms, and the adult students start running amok, babbling formulaic chunks of colloquial language at each other, I recommend that the teacher gives out copies of that most calming, not to say soporific, textbook Natural Grammar.

Thornbury claims to be a bridge between researchers working on SLA and practicing teachers. The justification for the claim is that yes he is. The question remains: do we need better bridges?


Eubank, L. and Gregg, K. R. (2002) News Flash – Hume Still Dead. Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 24, 2, 237-248.

Gregg, K.R. (2003) The state of emergentism in second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 19, 95.

Research Paradigms

I had a rather confused exchange with Steve Brown and Carol Goodey on Twitter on Saturday about paradigms. I thought they were using the term “paradigm” in the way that Kuhn uses it to refer to a dominant theory which defines the domain of research in a particular area, the procedures researchers should follow in their experiments, and the criteria by which they test and evaluate the theory. But they weren’t; they were using it to refer to “a belief system, world view, or framework that guides research and practice in a field”.  A “research paradigm”, it seems, comprises

a view of the nature of reality (i.e., ontology) – whether it is external or internal to the knower; a related view of the type of knowledge that can be generated and standards for justifying it (i.e., epistemology); and a disciplined approach to generating that knowledge (i.e., methodology). 

This quote is from an article that Carol Goodey cited by Taylor and Medina. It uses the same terminology as the article Steve Brown cited by Guba and Lincoln: “Competing Paradigms in Qualitative Research”.

It turns out, then, that while Khun in the late 1950s sparked off a discussion of paradigm theories in science, a discussion that Popper, Lakatos, Fereyabend, Laudan and others joined in, Guba and Lincoln later articulated a discussion of philosophical aspects of “Research Paradigms”  which is now considered by many to be part of a necessary background for any discussion of (educational) research. It’s hardly surprising that Khun, Popper and company don’t discuss “Research Paradigms”, because they all take a realist ontology and epistemology for granted, and they all agree that scientific method requires hypotheses to be tested by means of empirical observation, logic and rational argument.  So what are all these  “Research Paradigms” about? We need to take a closer look.

According to Taylor and Medina, the most “traditional” paradigm is positivism:

Positivism is a research paradigm that is very well known and well established in universities worldwide. This ‘scientific’ research paradigm strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour, and is commonly used in graduate research to test theories or hypotheses.

Well actually, positivism is no such thing, or at least it wasn’t until the relativists made it so. As anyone who has studied philosophy will know, positivism refers to a particular form of empiricism, and is a philosophical view primarily concerned with the issue of reliable knowledge.

Comte invented the term and argued that each branch of knowledge passes through “three different theoretical states: the theological or fictitious state; the metaphysical or abstract state; and, lastly, the scientific or positive state.” (Comte, 1830, cited in Ryan, 1970:36)  At the theological stage, the will of God explains phenomena, at the metaphysical stage phenomena are explained by appealing to abstract philosophical categories, and at the scientific stage, any attempt at absolute explanations of causes is abandoned.  Science focuses on how observational phenomena are related, and any generalisations are subjected to empirical verification.

Mach, the Austrian philosopher and physicist, headed the second wave of positivism, which rooted out the “contradictory” religious elements in Comte’s work, and took advantage of the further progress made in the hard sciences to insist on purging all metaphysics from the scientific method. Then came the Vienna Circle in the 1920s. There is, interestingly, a fifty-year gap between each of these three phases of positivism: like a bad penny, it kept coming back. Although it was thoroughly discredited in philosophical circles and among those working in the hard sciences by 1940, in the social sciences, biology, psychology and linguistics, it continued to have a powerful influence on research methodology right up until the nineteen fifties. The development of behaviourism was inspired by positivist ideology, by the desire to rid psychology of speculative thought and to put it on a sound “scientific” footing, and the predominant tendency for linguistics at this time to eschew “mentalist” models also has its roots in positivism.

The objective of the members of the Vienna Circle was to continue the work of their predecessors by giving empiricism a more rigorous formulation through the use of recent developments in mathematics and logic. The Vienna circle, which comprised Schlick, Carnap, Godel, and others, and had Russell, Whitehead and Wittgenstein as interested parties, developed a programme labelled Logical Positivism, which consisted first of cleaning up language so as to get rid of paradoxes , and then limiting science to strictly empirical statements: in the grand tradition of positivism they pledged to get rid of all speculations on “pseudo problems” and concentrate exclusively on empirical data. Ideas were to be seen as “designations”, terms or concepts, that were formulated in words that needed to be carefully defined in order that they be meaningful, rather than meaningless.

Their efforts lasted less than a decade, and by the time the 2nd world war started, the movement had broken up in complete disarray. In my opinion, the logical positivists represent the high point of obscurantism and blinkeredness: never has such a celebrated band of clever academics marched down such an absurd blind alley. In any case, the point is that when Taylor and Medina (like Guba and Lincoln, and Lantolf and so many other relativists) refer to “positivists” , they’re referring to their own invented set of researchers who have no historical reality, and when they refer to the “positivst paradigm” they’re referring to a general set of beliefs, etc., that misrepresents the views of scientists in general. Now let’s look at Taylor and Medina’s account of different research paradigms.

The “Positive Paradigm”

The positive paradigm “strives to investigate, confirm and predict law-like patterns of behaviour”. It is adopted by those working “in natural science, physical science and, to some extent, in the social sciences, especially where very large sample sizes are involved”.  Its focus is “on the objectivity of the research process”. It “mostly involves quantitative methodology, utilizing experimental methods”. The ontology of this research paradigm is realism, the epistemology is objectivism, and a quantitative methodology usually governs the research process.

The “Post-Positivist Paradigm”

Post-positivism is a “milder form of positivism “that follows the same principles but allows more interaction between the researcher and his/her research participants. ….. This paradigm is the modified scientific method for the social sciences. …. It is very similar to the positivist approach of comparing mean scores but depends on non-equivalent groups that differ from each other in many ways”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume it’s the same as that of the positivist research paradigm.

The “Interpretive Paradigm”

“The epistemology of this paradigm is inter-subjective knowledge construction. Interpretive knowledge of the other is produced through a prolonged process of interaction undertaken by ethnographers who immerse themselves within the culture they are studying. Using ethnographic methods of informal interviewing, participant observation and establishing ethically sound relationships, interpretive researchers construct trustworthy and authentic accounts of the cultural other”.

“The most coherent quality standards that regulate interpretive knowledge construction are those of Guba and Lincoln (1989) who developed standards of trustworthiness and authenticity that are distinctly different but ‘parallel to’ the validity, reliability and objectivity standards of positivism. ……. Recent developments in the interpretive paradigm have highlighted the importance of the researcher’s own subjectivity in the (hermeneutic) process of interpretation”. Nothing is said about ontology, and the epistemology isn’t clear, but if it comes from Guba and Lincoln then it’s relativist.

The “Critical Paradigm”

The critical research paradigm addresses the question: ‘Whose interests are not being (and should be) served by particular social policies and practices?’ by enabling the researcher “to identify and transform socially unjust social structures, policies, beliefs and practices. Its primary purpose is to identify, contest and help resolve ‘gross power imbalances’ in society which fuel ethically questionable profit-making activities that contribute to systemic inequalities and injustices. ….. Critical inquiry focuses first on raising the conscious awareness of teachers about established values and beliefs that underpin their seemingly natural teacher-centred classroom roles (Taylor, 2008). Once this process is underway, critical theory is introduced (e.g., critical pedagogy, cultural inclusiveness, social justice) that stimulates teachers’ creative thinking about designing curricula and assessment that are more student-centred, inquiry oriented, culturally sensitive, community-oriented, socially responsible, etc.”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm.

The “Postmodern Paradigm”

“This paradigm uses the concept of ‘representation’ (Denzin & Lincoln, 2005) which holds that what goes on in our minds and hearts is not directly accessible to the world outside us. There is no window in our heads that allows another person to look directly into our minds and see ‘exactly what we mean’; the best we can do is ‘represent’ our thoughts and feelings through various means of communication (e.g., language, art, dance, gesture)………. All scientific observations are ‘theory laden’ and scientific knowledge remains forever contingent and open to challenge”. Nothing is said about the ontology or epistemology of this research paradigm, but I assume that they’re relativist.

Multi-Paradigmatic Research

“Rather than standing alone as individual paradigms for framing the design of a researcher’s inquiry, as does the positivist paradigm, the newer paradigms can serve as ‘referents’. In other words, we can design our research by combining methods and quality standards drawn from two or more of the newer paradigms. It is not uncommon for a research study to combine methods and standards from the interpretive and critical paradigms to create a ‘critical auto/ethnography’. And when new literary genres, modes of thinking and quality standards are added from Arts-based research such multi-paradigmatic studies become very powerful means of transformative professional development (Taylor, Taylor, & Luitel, 2011)”.


I think Taylor and Medina have a clear agenda, and it’s not one I have much time for. But whether or not one agrees with the agenda, as a way of understanding scientific research, their article misrepresents both the philosophy of science and scientific method; and, furthermore, it complicates what is a simple choice between realist and relativist epistemologies.

Postmodernists and constructivists feel that the modern project has failed, and I have some sympathy for that view. There is a great deal of injustice in the world, and there are good grounds for thinking that a ruling minority who benefit from the way economic activity is organised are responsible for manipulating information in general, and research programmes in particular, in extremely sophisticated ways, so as to bolster and increase their power and control. To the extent that postmodernists and constructivists feel that science and its discourse are riddled with a repressive ideology, and to the extent that they feel it necessary to develop their own language and discourse to combat that ideology, they are making a political statement, as they are when they say that “Theory conceals, distorts, and obfuscates, it is alienated, disparated, dissonant, it means to exclude, order, and control rival powers” (Culler, 1982: 67).  They have every right to express such views, and it is surely a good idea to encourage people to scrutinise texts, to try to uncover their “hidden agendas”.  Likewise the constructivist educational programme can be welcomed as an attempt to follow the tradition of humanistic liberal education.

Where the postmodernists are mistaken is in their assumption that their political analysis has necessary implications for the veracity or otherwise of any particular theory.  And where they seem to fail miserably is in the alternative they offer to a rationalist research programme.  When one adopts a “postmodernist research paradigm” what are the results for theory construction?  What are the results of all this analysis?  No causal explanations, or theories, are allowed, it seems.  All attempts to explain, refute, establish, confirm, etc., must be deconstructed and exposed as the logocentric-serving myths that they are; the task is to undermine, and overcome not just science but language and common sense.  To what end?

The constructivists obviously have a point when they say (not that they said it first) that science is a social construct. Science is certainly a social institution, and scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced.  And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction.  Of course.  But, and here is the crux, this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it.  Popper, in reply to criticisms of his naïve falsification position, defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual short-comings of its members are largely cancelled out.

As Bunge (1996) points out “The only genuine social constructions are the exceedingly uncommon scientific forgeries committed by a team.” (Bunge, 1996: 104) Bunge gives the example of the Piltdown man that was “discovered” by two pranksters in 1912, authenticated by many experts, and unmasked as a fake in 1950.  “According to the existence criterion of constructivism-relativism we should admit that the Piltdown man did exist – at least between 1912 and 1950 – just because the scientific community believed in it” (Bunge, 1996: 105).

The heart of the confusion for all those who take a radically relativist position, whether they be proponents of the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge, social constructivists, or postmodernists, is the deliberate confusion of two separate issues: claims about the existence or non-existence of particular things, facts and events, and claims about how one arrives at beliefs and opinions. Whether or not the Piltdown man is a million years old is a question of fact.  What the scientific community thought about the skull it examined in 1912 is also a question of fact.  When we ask what led that community to believe in the hoax, we are looking for an explanation of a social phenomenon, and that is a separate issue.  Just because for forty years the Piltdown man was supposed to be a million years old does not make him so, however interesting the fact that so many people believed it might be.

The postmodernist research paradigm claims that our beliefs are all we have, and that there is nothing “out there” that exists independently of them. Latour and Woolgar’s famous study (1979) is a good example.  While it might very well be the case that we believe that dinosaurs existed, and that DNA exists today, because the scientists tell us so, it remains, for those of us who want to take a realist, rationalist view of the world at least, an independent question of fact as to whether or not such things exist, i.e. whether or not our beliefs are true or false.

When Guba and Lincoln say “There are multiple, often conflicting, constructions and all (at least potentially) are meaningful. The question of which or whether constructions are true is socio-historically relative.”, this is a perfectly acceptable comment, as far as it goes.  If Guba and Lincoln argue that the observer cannot be neatly disentangled from the observed in the activity of inquiry, then again the point can be well taken.  But when they insist that constructions are exclusively in the minds of individuals, that “they do not exist outside of the persons who created and hold them; they are not part of some “objective” world that exists apart from their constructors”, and that “what can be known and the individual who comes to know it are fused into a coherent whole”, then they have disappeared into a Humpty Dumpty world where anything can mean whatever anybody wants it to mean.

A radically relativist epistemology rules out the possibility of data collection, of empirical tests, of any rational criterion for judging between rival explanations and I believe those doing research and building theories should have no truck with them. Solipsism and science, like solipsism and anything else of course, do not go well together. If the postmodernist paradigm  rejects any understanding of time because “the modern understanding of time controls and measures individuals”, if they argue that no theory is more correct than any other, if they believe that “everything has already happened”, that “there is no real world”, that “we can never really know anything”, then I think they should continue their “game”, as they call it, in their own way, and let those of us who prefer to work with more rationalist assumptions get on with scientific research.


I would stress the broadness of the rationalist definition of research and theory construction; the relativists often seem unaware of what science, and rational enquiry in general, involves. It seems necessary to point out to them that science is not the same as positivism, or empiricism and it doesn’t prescribe any fixed methodology. So all the “research paradigms” described by Taylor and Medina are acceptable in my opinion except the postmodernist one. On a cautionary note, I think it’s important to be clear about “where they’re coming from”; I don’t like their language and I suspect there’s a strong bias towards postmodernist approaches in that “school”.

In general, I’m afraid I don’t really see the point of these research paradigms if they’re not a way of arguing for a relativist position, but never mind: at least I know what they’re on about now. Just to make my own position clear, I don’t see myself as having a”Post-Positivist” research paradigm as Steve suggested. The rationalist position I hold is that knowledge of the world is gained in all sorts of ways, but that the most reliable knowledge comes from engaging in research which leads to the development of theories, i.e. attempts to explain phenomena. These theories are developed with various rules of logic and language to guide the process and are scrutinised so as to discover flaws in terminology or reasoning, and to build the clearest, simplest version of the theory.  Such theories should then lay themselves open to empirical tests: there must be the possibility of observing events in the world that contradict them.


(Citations from Taylor & Medina, and Guba & Lincoln can be found in their articles which you can download from the links above.)

Bunge, M. 1996: In Praise of Intolerance to Charlatanism in Academia. In Gross, R, Levitt, N., and Lewis, M. The Flight From Science and Reason. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, Vol. 777, 96-116.

Culler, J. 1982: On Deconstruction: Theory and Criticism after Structuralism.  Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. 1979: Laboratory Life: The Social Construction of Scientific Facts.  London: Sage.