LINGUIST List 15.1666

Wed May 26 2004

Review: Applied Linguistics: Danesi (2003)

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  1. Stacia Levy, Second Language Teaching: A view from the right side of the brain

Message 1: Second Language Teaching: A view from the right side of the brain

Date: Wed, 26 May 2004 00:31:30 -0400 (EDT)
From: Stacia Levy <>
Subject: Second Language Teaching: A view from the right side of the brain

Author: Danesi, Marcel
Title: Second Language Teaching
Subtitle: A view from the right side of the brain 
Series: Topics in Language and Linguistics 
Year: 2003
Publisher: Kluwer Academic Publishers
Announced at

Stacia Levy, University of the Pacific 


This book, written for language teachers, proposes a method of using
both hemispheres of the brain to address the ''second language
teaching dilemma,'' or the high failure rate of those who attempt to
acquire a second language. The book begins with a thorough review of
the history of second language teaching methods and their weaknesses
and advantages. The author also introduces some key concepts in
language acquisition study, such as the acquisition/learning dichotomy
and the critical period hypothesis. The author then addresses the
structure of the human brain, cerebral dominance theory, and
neurolinguistic language teaching methods. This discussion is
technical, avoiding the ''popular science'' aspect that has makes up
so much of the literature on hemisphere dominance theory. The author
himself notes this tendency in the literature, pointing out that
research on the way the brain processes information shows that the two
hemispheres compliment each other. He prefers the terms ''right mode''
and ''left mode,'' recognizing that while the brain hemispheres may be
specialized for certain functions, it is only in tandem with the other
hemisphere. The most effective teaching is ''intermodal'' and
''flows'' from the right hemisphere, which is more effective in
assimilating new information through experiential tasks and then to
the left hemisphere, which relates the new learning to old through
analysis. The last chapters of the book are devoted to specific
strategies to develop ''intermodal'' language learning through
different strategies.


Chapter 1 serves to introduce the ''Second Language Teaching Dilemma''
(SLT Dilemma), or the apparent ineffectiveness of classroom
instruction on second language acquisition and the search for the
perfect ''method'' to address this. Among methods reviewed are
grammar-translation, audio- lingual, cognitive-code, and communicative
language teaching. The author also addresses key issues such as
language acquisition versus learning and the critical period
hypothesis. At the end, the author briefly touches on language
educators' growing interest in the neurosciences.

Chapter 2 is devoted to the analysis of the human brain and its
relation to language learning. The structure and functions of the
brain is described. Cerebral dominance theory is also introduced as
well as complementary hemisphericity theory, which supports the notion
that both hemispheres are needed working in tandem on any task. Also
discussed are the ''neurolinguistic methods,'' such as suggestopedia
and the natural approach, language teaching methods that draw on the

Chapter 3 introduces the notion of ''modal flow,'' the belief that
language learning should flow from the right hemisphere, domain of
experiential learning to the left hemisphere, which involves more
analytical learning.

Chapter 4 is devoted to the notion of ''conceptual'' competence and
metaphor as related to second language acquisition (SLA).

Chapter 5 is taken up by a ''repertoire of techniques'' for second
language teaching (SLT).

The book has an extensive glossary of terms common to SLA.


I began reading the book with a certain amount of skepticism because
of my dislike for the simplistic terms ''right brained'' and
''left-brained'' but found that the author's treatment of the topic
thorough and he acknowledges these terms as more or less metaphors for
two types of processing that, together, provide for powerful
learning. By beginning with a review of second language acquisition
methods and key concerns in the profession, the author locates
hemisphericity theory within this tradition and as integral rather
than, as it might be viewed, as peripheral. The discussion of the
brain and its structure is thorough without being overly
technical. And by ending with a ''repertoire of techniques'' that
promote intermodal learning, the author shows application for the
theory dealt with in the earlier chapters.

The author does, in chapter 4, after reviewing the literature on
second language teaching and the brain, go on an extended foray into
metaphor study and the notion of ''conceptual competence,'' which an
understanding of a culture's common metaphors expressed through
language: for example, English speakers tend to speak of time in terms
of money: spending time, saving time, etc. Understanding this about
the language is ''conceptual competence,'' which is key to second
language acquisition, according to the author. This supposed
overriding importance of conceptual competence seems to me something
of a stretch. Lack of cultural competence may lead to some
unidiomatic speech (e.g. ''I lost all my time,'' instead of ''I
wasted all my time.'') but that it is so important to language
learning seems unsupported. In addition, this chapter on metaphor and
conceptual competence (titled ''Fine Tuning the Brain''), while
interesting, seems only tangentially related to the main topic of
hemisphericity. In the last chapter of the book, the author presents a
long list of different language teaching techniques: analytical
''left-mode'' techniques such as minimal contrasts and
corrections. Other techniques are experiential and ''right-mode,''
such as problem-solving and cloze. Still other techniques are
''intermodal,'' such as personalization techniques (e.g. discussing
questions such as ''Do you prefer living in an apartment or a

Some of these I found a bit puzzling, such as why cloze would be right
mode yet sentence completions intermodal. The author then goes on to
give suggestions for organizing a curriculum of these techniques
according to ''the modal flow principle,'' with learning flowing from
the r-mode to the l-mode if a task is new because the r-mode provides
the needed context and experiential learning and the l-mode the
structure and analysis.

Despite some minor concerns, I found this a valuable book, especially
for applied linguists who are not new to the profession but may want
to explore and develop some new techniques. While I don't necessarily
see ''conceptual competence'' or the ''modal flow principle'' as
solving the second language teaching dilemma, the author nevertheless
presents a thorough and compelling case.


Stacia Levy has recently completed her dissertation in corpus
linguistics at the University of the Pacific in California and
discussed the results at the American Association of Applied Linguists
in Portland, Oregon. She is currently working at University of the
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