LINGUIST List 11.2052

Tue Sep 26 2000

Disc: Re: Review of Green

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  1. j.mukherjee, Disc: New/Re: Review of Green

Message 1: Disc: New/Re: Review of Green

Date: Mon, 25 Sep 2000 20:00:20 +0200
From: j.mukherjee <j.mukherjeeuni-bonn.de>
Subject: Disc: New/Re: Review of Green

Jose Luis Guijarro has taken Dalila Ayoun's review of Green's New
Perspectives on Teaching and Learning Modern Languages as a point of
departure for some critical remarks on the communicative approach in EFL
teaching. As he admits not having read the book under discussion, I am
actually at a loss what to do with his review of the review. My (maybe
wrong) impression is that Ayoun's contribution serves as a peg on which to
hang a more or less unrelated comment on language acquisition in general. In
the following, I would like to turn to some of the reasons he puts forward
that makes him "so utterly a miscreant on these 'modern' ways" (of language
teaching, that is).

>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.

Needless to say, the recognition of a fixed concept (as in 1) cannot be
compared with the linguistic competence a child usually acquires in a
comparatively short period of time. So let's stick to point 2 for the time
being. I don't know whether Chomsky or any other linguist has ever succeeded
in showing that a child is in fact born with a specific (language
acquisition) device. It's a model which sounds plausible from several points
of view and, thus, accounts for certain facts, e.g. for the rapid
development of linguistic competence. However, corpus linguistic studies
reveal that authentic language use (unlike the slot-and-filler model
Chomsky's ideal speaker/hearer has at his/her disposal) is to a large extent
based on routine.

>There is no universal pattern in
>anything while one learns a foreign language.

Now, this is something I totally agree with. But obviously, Guijarro's
reasons are completely different from mine. The bottom line of my assumption
is that a universal grammar does not exist. It might again be a plausible
model from the generative point of view, but if the physical existence of
the language acquisition device cannot be proved in the first place (which,
to my knowledge, neurobiologists have not (yet?) discovered), I find the
hypothesis of universal patterns across all human languages even less
convincing. Guijarro, on the other hand, seems to believe that there is a
fundamental difference between one's native language (whatever this may be,
e.g. in case of bilinguals who have full command of neither language) and a
foreign language:

>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.


In what sense is "a mother language [...] indeed natural"? In my view, this
raises one of the most central - and banal - questions: is the native tongue
special because it is the native language (circular argument, I assume), or
is it special because we learn it as our first language? Provided that the
latter makes more sense, I can't see why the acquisition/learning of L1
should be natural and the acquisition/learning of foreign languages should
not. Would Guijarro agree with me on the point that the learning of a
foreign language is natural if the mother tongue is of no communicative
value in a given context (e.g. immigrants)? What, in fact, is "natural"
about language learning in general? Pointing to Fodor's suggestions, thus
establishing a sharp contrast between native and foreign language, and
finally demanding empirical evidence for counter-arguments leads nowhere,
because there is no empirical evidence for a whatever peculiar status of the
native language acquisition either.

This brings me back to the beginning. Reversing Guijarro's chain of
arguments, there is no reason to believe that learning the mother tongue and
learning a foreign language are fundamentally and by definition different.
Neither generative grammarians nor proponents of relevance theory have shown
what actually happens in the brain when a child learns a new word or
grammatical construction. THIS would be a prerequisite for truly empirical
evidence, and this kind of data will surely not come from linguistic
theories, but from further progress in the field of molecular
biology/neurophysiology of the brain.

As long as there is no such evidence, I can see no compelling reason to
consider mother tongue and foreign language as a priori different. And
therefore, teaching a foreign language cannot do without a communicative
approach trying to imitate one of the major aspects of native language
acquisition, namely the need to communicate, i.e. to convey and negotiate
authentic (descriptive/social/emotional) meanings.

>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.

There is no such "wall of irrelevant stuff". In the same way as children
acquiring their native language filter out the relevant parts of language,
EFL students succeed in doing so. That this takes place at a significantly
slower rate is not due to the unnaturalness of the foreign language to them,
but merely due to the smaller amount of exposure to foreign language data.

>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.

As far as "solid reasoning" is concerned: the best reason to assume that the
communicative approach is more appropriate than the "traditional good old
exercises" is the fact that it just works better in the EFL classroom. In
this context, I am not talking as a linguist, but as a teacher having
taught, until recently, English classes at German grammar schools for two
and a half years. I don't want to get into details about different kinds of
the communicative approach, the pros and cons of specific methods etc. But
the approach itself, i.e. the attempt to use the foreign language for
authentic communicative purposes to the largest possible extent, is
basically promising and provides good results, and, by the way, leads to a
higher degree of learner autonomy and learner motivation.

>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"

Be it modularity theory or any other linguistic theory: in the last resort
they must be put to the test in the real EFL classroom if they are supposed
to have a bearing on the teaching and learning of foreign languages. From
this perspective, what "macromodules" and "micromodules" could offer foreign
language teachers at work, remains a mystery to me.

Joybrato Mukherjee
University of Bonn

j.mukherjeeuni-bonn.de
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