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Can anyone overtake Syntax in the Subfield Challenge ?

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Discussion Details

Title: Re: 16.763, Disc: Re: 16.713: Controversies in AL
Submitter: Noah Silbert
Description: Although I don't disagree with the main thrust of Ronald Sheen's claims
about the state of Applied Linguistics, I find it more than a little ironic
that in his offer to defend his position, he falls prey to the same
intellectual pitfalls he is so eager to criticize.

Sheen invokes the implicit acceptance and evident failure of developmental
sequences in SLA. Although my knowledge of the relevant literature is
limited, I don't see how the failure of ''classroom application'' of
developmental sequences provides much grist for Sheen's mill. I'm not even
sure what ''classroom application'' of developmental sequences means.

My understanding is that developmental sequences serve as a description of
what occurs during SLA, not a guide to how to go about acquiring a second
language, and certainly not a theory predicting when (or if) SLA will
occur. I could be wrong, but I thought the basic idea of developmental
sequences was that second language learners will acquire, for example,
syntactic structures in a particular order, assuming they acquire the
structures at all. Failing to acquire a second language is certainly
consistent with, if only tangentially related to, the validity of
developmental sequences.

Now, I won't argue that developmental sequences have or have not been
misused and misrepresented by the Applied Linguistics community. My claim
here is simply that the idea of 'applying' developmental sequences in the
L2 classroom is, as far as I can tell, incoherent. On the other hand, it
makes good sense to attempt to test whether or not they play a role in SLA
and, if indeed they do, designing curricula to accomodate them.

Sheen's claim that the application of developmental sequences has ''NOWHERE
been demonstrated to result in an ability to produce accurate grammatical
language'' is also problematic. I may be misinterpreting this statement,
but if by 'grammatical language' he means native-like in every respect,
then it seems entirely likely that all theories of SLA are doomed to
failure simply because the goal is very probably unattainable. If anything
is clear in Applied Linguistics, it's that second language acquisition is
not first language acquisition. For whatever reason, the process is
arduous and the end state (insofar as 'the end state' is a coherent
concept) is incomplete.

Since we're on the subject of the end state of SLA, Sheen's claim that
''there is empirical evidence to demonstrate that such an application is
more a recipe for fossilisation'' is his most glaring example of unwitting
acceptance of a dubious theoretical construct, exactly what he takes as the
field's worst failing.

As far as I can tell, fossilization is, in principle, untestable. The
implication is that a second language structure becomes fixed in some
non-native-like state. But no matter how many times you test a subject (or
population of subjects) and find some stable L2-ism, how do you know that,
the very next time you test them, it will still be the same? I have no
doubt that L2 structures stabilize, making further progress extremely
difficult, but I very much doubt the value of a construct like fossilization.

Again, I agree with Mr. Sheen that an unfortunately large number of dubious
ideas have been, and continue to be, erroneously accepted in Applied
Linguistics (as they are in many relatively young fields of research, it's
worth adding). I just wanted to draw attention to what appears to be the
same problem in Ronald Sheen's offer to support his argument.

For previous messages in this discussion, see:
Date Posted: 17-Mar-2005
Linguistic Field(s): Applied Linguistics
LL Issue: 16.819
Posted: 17-Mar-2005

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