LINGUIST List 11.2034

Mon Sep 25 2000

Disc: Corrected/New/Re: Review of Green

Editor for this issue: Karen Milligan <>


  1. jose luis guijarro, Language teaching and communicative methodology

Message 1: Language teaching and communicative methodology

Date: Sun, 24 Sep 2000 11:13:34 +0200
From: jose luis guijarro <>
Subject: Language teaching and communicative methodology

Editor's Note: What follows is a corrected version of LINGUIST
Issue:11.2031. LINGUIST List would like to apologize to Drs. Ayoun and
Guijarro for the posting error.

Hola, buenas!

In her review of Green's _New Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Modern
Languages_ (LINGUIST Issue: 11.1984) Dalila Ayoun says, among other things:

> The chapters dealing with the actual classroom methodologies all
> express their deep dissatisfaction with the way the communicative
> approach has taken over foreign language classrooms or rather with
> the way it has been implemented, which barely distinguishes it from
> the direct method for instance(...)
.>Autonomy in language learning could lead to more
> effective and meaningful communication as the learners would decide
> curriculum content in collaboration with teachers as successfully
> done in a handful of classrooms (Dam, 1995).
> Thus the current state of foreign language learning and teaching is
> very clearly described and understood

JLG: I fear I am in complete disagreement with this last optimistic
assertion. I strongly believe that there are mighty good reasons to forget
about the important CENTRAL role of real-life communication or, better and
more elusively put, of a "challenging communicative environment with a
content-based approach" in the fixing of linguistic structures (i.e.,
LEARNING) in the minds of potential learners.

MIND YOU: I am not (repeat, NOT) saying that exercising your learned stuff
is wrong. What I am saying is that this "modern" (?) way of doing is IN
PRINCIPLE not better than trying to learn vocabulary by rote, although I
willingly concede that it might me "more fun" for hardly motivated
kids --though this remains to be proved empirically. Let me start a brief
summary of the reasons that make me so utterly a miscreant on these "modern"

1) As we all know, and Konrad Lorenz (among others) showed, little ducks are
born with a device that IMPRINTS in their minds the "concept" `[MY MOTHER]
if certain physical conditions in the environment obtain, giving them the
benefit of a protector in their early life.

2) As we all know, and Noam Chosmy (among others) showed, little babies are
born with a device that IMPRINTS in their minds the "linguistic
representations" of their milieu if certain physical conditions obtain,
giving them the benefit of a tool that helps them communicate with people
during all their life.

3) As we all know, Jerry Fodor considered that this inprintable language
acquisition device we are all born with is in fact one of many modular
devices we have in our minds that are mandatory, quick and hollow and which
help us in sending information from the environment to what he called the
central system(s).

One of the characteristics of the fodorian modules is that its acquisition
follows a universal pattern and sequencing. That is, at a certain age, all
babies follow THE SAME path at about THE SAME time of their lives and
according to THE SAME temporal span. So far, so good.

4) Now, in the middle of the chomskyan fashion of the seventies, some people
got the idea that the ACQUISITION device for learning the mother tongue was
somehow responsible for ALL learning of foreign languages' linguistic
elements. Accordingly, they made a distinction between LEARNING a language,
which is what we, poor oldies, have done in getting a foreign language (more
or less!) in our heads, and ACQUIRING a language, which is what our lucky
descendants are supposed to be doing in fixing the linguistic elements of
the foreign languages they tackle.

This distinction is a misrepresentation. There is no universal pattern in
anything while one learns a foreign language. The discoverer of the mythical
Troy, Schliemann, learnt a foreign language every three months. John Lyons
once told me that Spanish was a language one could learnt in 15 days. It
took ME four years or so of my childhood! But then, it has taken me more
than six years to give up the learning of Chinese in my adulthood. And so

5) Moreover, the acquisition of a mother language is indeed natural. But
that is because, according to Fodor, our modules are prewired and every
single hint we get form the environment is immediately and EFFICIENTLY
processed and becomes an asset for the final imprinting. This, of course, IS
NOT THE CASE while one learns a foreign language. Or, if it should be the
case, it should also be empirically well fundamented --which to my knowledge
is anything but.

6) I am a fan of Relevance Theory. According to it, and if interpret it
rightly, whenever we process information, we keep in our minds ONLY the one
that seems relevant to us. That is the only one that PRODUCTIVELY INTERACTS
with our old information in order to give us either (a) totally new
information, (b) reinforcement of old information, or (c) weakening and
eventually erasing of old information.

It is my contention that, during certain stages of foreign language
learning, a real communicative content (or whatever!) will be loaded with
lots and lots of information that is totally irrelevant to the student. It,
therefore, will be processed as NOISE and be subsequently erased, with all
the processing effort this certainly requires. As it does not have the
benefits of relevant information, it tends to form a concrete wall of
irrelevant stuff that slowly by slowly might do away with the (little)
motivation the student might have had when he began learning.

7) The defenders of the Communicative Faith tell us that, precisely, by
doing natural meaningful activities, this problem should disappear, for the
"meaningful" should help new linguistic information to become relevant. I
wish somebody in the field would explain to me how this process comes about.
Why not teach them directly a few vocabulary and grammatical forms and have
them used in "traditional good old exercises"? Why indeed is the "meaningful
approach" more relevant than the traditional one? I'm not saying it is not.
What I am asking is WHY. I am a miscreant, and I don't believe by faith
alone. I need solid reasoning and empirical proof.

8) Lastly and (almost) incidentally, I am pretty sure that our communication
ability (or, in Relevance Theory terms, our faculty to "optimize relevance"
of information in our communicative interactions) is also a module like
device. Which means that it becomes settled and imprinted at a very early
age and does not have to be taught again --or better, CANNOT be taught again
and again... and again. The foreign language learner will use whatever means
he has at her disposal to engage in a communicative interaction with
foreigners, as I am doing now with you people. (S)he may not use the right
(i.e., native) elements in the appropriate place and time (as I am sure I am
not), but (s)he will communicate, never fear! No problem in that angle.

9) An intriguing problem, for which I haven't got an clear answer, is the
developping of a module-like functioning of some consciously learned
activities (i.e., driving a bike, or playing a piano) and representations
(i.e., learning to read, or learning to look at birds professionally). This
development of foreign language representations in hollow, quick, (almost)
unconscious, and mandatory mental reactions is what I think confused the
early advocates of the distinction between LEARNING and ACQUIRING. But, I
insist, from a linguistic point of view (in the chomskyan tradition, that
is) the similarity ends there. I wish somebody would point out to me whether
this has been treated seriously somewhere.

10) One of the authors of Relevance Theory, Dan Sperber, has argued that the
human mind might be a lot more modular than what Fodor thought. In fact, it
might be totally modular, in which case, to say that some functioning is
modular is not to say very much. What he argues, I think rightly, is that
there is not a uniform kind of mind modules. There might be a good number of
types, ranging from the micromodules which we call "concepts" to
macromodules like what I mentioned before could be called the relevance
device we use in acquiring information. All this is a very speculative field
just now, I agree, but at least it might be a much more "new perspective on
teaching and learning modern languages". Some people, however, may fail to
find "novelty" in going back to traditional drills and excersises. It must
be clear, though that:

A) Nietzsche's "Ewige Ruckkehr" should be represented as a spiral staircase,
in which, although we come always back to view the same part of the wall, we
are always a few steps higher and things might be differently understood.

B) I am in no way certain that those traditional excersises are THE solution
to our language learning problems. My point is, however, that the "modern"
approaches are in any way better than the old ones. In this, I tend to agree
on Henry Widdowson's (reported) conversion, when, after the falling of the
Iron Curtain, it became evident that many language students of "the other
side" (who had NEVER been taught with anything but old traditional methods)
did a lot better than language student "on this side" (who had benefited
from "communicative" methodology)..

Hasta otra!

Jose Luis Guijarro Morales
Facultad de Filosofia y Letras
Avda. Gomez Ulla, 1
11003 Cadiz (Espa´┐Ża)
Tel. +34 956 015526
Fax. +34 956 015501
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