Carol Morgan, and Albane Cain (2000) Foreign Language and Culture
Learning from a Dialogic Perspective (Modern Languages in Practice 15),
Multilingual Matters, viii+160 pp., ISBN 1-85359-499-7, hardback, GBP
39.95. A paperback edition is also available, ISBN 1-85359-498-9.
Stephen A. Bird, University of Cambridge
'Foreign Language and Culture Learning from a Dialogic Perspective'
describes a co-operative Language Learning project between school
classrooms in France and England. The project was motivated by the
teachers'/authors' commitment to language learning theories that assume
learning is a 'dialogic process' - that is, a process in which
"understanding is built up over a range of contexts through interaction
with different people..."(p.1). The authors contrast this theoretical
perspective with that of authors such as Chomsky and Piaget, whose
theories emphasise that learning is a natural process driven by innate
mechanisms, and that learning context and feedback from others (teachers,
parents, and so on) are largely irrelevant to the course of development.
The book attempts more than a description of a learning project, however.
A large proportion of the content is devoted to applying sociolinguistic
analysis to the materials produced by the students. This 'decoding' of the
students' work appears to be serving two purposes - as some kind of
evidence that the project engaged the students in dialogues, hence
learning; and as a tool for revealing subtle meanings conveyed by the
Language teachers will be familiar with the general practical teaching
method favoured by the 'dialogic' approach: authentic language and real
conversation with native speakers. Rote learning and artificial
question-and-answer interactions between teachers and students are the
enemy here. 'Dialogic' is the adjectival form of 'dialogue', and this book
is about ways of encouraging authentic dialogue to facilitate second
language learning and cultural understanding.
The authors are on safe ground with this approach. One would be
hard-pressed these days to find a language teacher who would argue against
the idea of getting students to have real conversations in the target
language with native speakers in order to learn. Chapter 1 goes to great
lengths to demonstrate the 'dialogic' nature of learning and of language
in general, but it is doubtful anyone needs convincing of this.
The following chapters describe and analyse the project: a six-week
co-operative interaction between a French second language classroom group
in England and a English second language classroom group France. A topic
was chosen (Law and Order) and students in each country produced written,
tape recorded and videotape recorded materials in their native language.
These were then exchanged and students read their counterparts products,
thereby serving as replacements for textbook materials for the other group.
The authors admit that this is not particularly innovative approach, but
still, it is a nice idea. What is surprising is the difficulty the authors
report encountering in setting up the exchange programme. One wonders why
this not by now a well-established practice in England and France.
Millions of students in both countries have been learning the others'
language for centuries, and yet there apparently is no established
co-operative relationship between schools in the two countries. Judging by
the authors' description, it sounds as if the project was some kind of
pioneering effort. This is baffling, and the main interest of this book
lies in the authors' discussion of practical problems and solutions for
implementing the programme on a wider scale.
The rest of the book is dedicated to a long and detailed sociolinguistic
analysis of the materials the students produced. While it is certainly
interesting to consider some sociolinguistic theory in regard to student
work - for example, considering some of the different ways in which
learners can engage in dialogue - the level of detail and the sheer length
of the commentary in the present instance seem out of proportion to the
materials, which were produced by the student groups in a matter of a few
days of class time. The reader is obliged to wade through page after page
of unnecessary description and, frankly, uninteresting "analysis". The
reader is told, for example, that "The messages transferred between the
two classrooms relied on a range of signals including syntactic features
(determiners, anaphora, etc.), intonation, punctuation, and the use of
illustrations" (p.44). This is not informative analysis. Bearing in mind
the students were writing sentences, it seems predictable enough that
'signals' such as syntax and punctuation would be used. In another
instance, the authors speculate that, "the English students had a longer
time-span and a wider range of resources on which to draw, and this was
likely to be one of the reasons why they produced a more diverse set of
materials." (p.66). Again, this is really not a valuable insight, adds
unnecessary length to the book, and detracts from the important part of
this project - the learning that took place through dialogue.
Unfortunately these examples are only two of many in the book.
And did any learning take place? It is hard to tell. There is a very
brief, half-page section entitled 'Learning the Target Language' which
says nothing about the target language learned by the students. Instead,
the reader is given a few brief quotations from the students, none of
which address whether the students learned or even felt they had learned
any new language. Admittedly, one should not be expecting a lot of
quantitative data here - this was not the aim of the project, and the
students only worked on the materials for a brief time. Nevertheless, one
has to object when Chapter 5 appears and some rather grand claims are
made. For example, we are told that there was observed "a much higher
level of cognitive engagement than is usually achieved with textbook
materials." (p.98). Evidence for this comes from one student's comment
that, after reading about laws in France, 'If you go on holiday, you're
more aware of the law there". If claims about learning and awareness
raising are going to be made, a more robust body of evidence is going to
be needed. But, as has already been said, the claim that authentic
dialogue leads to learning really does not need any supporting evidence,
and highly questionable evidence does nothing but make the text
In general, this book reflects a disturbing trend in applied linguistics
in which authors feel a need to produce articles and books that are
'supported theoretically', whether or not the subject matter requires or
merits any sort of theoretical underpinning. The project is obviously a
solid addition to a language learning curriculum and the authors are to be
applauded for initiating it. Hopefully it will become a standard part of
the national curriculum in the UK and France because it clearly exposes
students to foreign culture, language, and real dialogue. Moreover, it
encourages students to be creative and to think about both their own
culture and the culture they are writing for. However, the reader does not
need a lot of theoretical sociolinguistic argument to be convinced of
this. This is not to say that sociolinguistic theory is uninteresting,
only that that sort of theory does not serve well as a testable theory
when applied to a small set of learning materials produced by a few dozen
students in a couple of days. The basic feeling after all the detailed
analysis is read is that the authors are finding explanations because they
are looking for them, not because they are actually in the data.
In sum, this book would have been improved considerably by being edited
down to article length and presented in a practical language teaching
journal as a suggestion for improving language education in Britain and
France. In it's current state the value of the project is lost in all the
academic theory and jargon.
Stephen Bird holds a PhD from the Cambridge University Research Centre for
English and Applied Linguistics. His research interests are in cognition
and language learning, natural language processing, practical teaching
methods, and automatic speech recognition. He currently works in the
private sector developing an artificial speech recognition system.