Bottle of Smoke
I am beginning to suspect, ELT is really the purveyance of snake oil. That is, rather than just being beset by snake oil sellers, perhaps there is no more to ELT as it stands than there is to a bottle of smoke.
It’s coming to something when I am so arrogant as to quote myself. I am currently putting together my thoughts on how we can brainwash students into enjoying their English classes and, in the meantime, wanted to run off this purely opinion-based bit of polemic. One of the good things about blogging is that you can crystallise thoughts into a piece of writing and then get feedback from other people which helps you adjust your perspective. So, if you feel like responding vigorously to what I am about to write, your views will, as ever, be most welcome.
I wanted to write in this blogpost about my suspicions that English Language Teaching is, for the most part, not all that it is cracked up to be. It could be, I am beginning to think, that we are at our most valuable when a student knows nothing, but the closer they get to a reasonable level (for which read non-basic user), the more redundant we become as teachers.
This idea started when I began to question the concept of second language acquisition. Perhaps, I thought, there is no such thing as second language acquisition. Perhaps there is just language acquisition and the process behind this is a natural and inevitable one that takes place in the time prior to birth and the first few years of existence. I have had the pleasure of seeing this process take place over the last decade or so and can see that it is a gradual process that stretches out over a number of years. It follows that if you are working with children within this period of time, my suspicions are less relevant because you are working within their language acquisition period (note the lack of ordinals).
Once humans have acquired the ability to communicate through whichever language(s) they have been inducted into, my suspicions state that the rest of it is just learning the noises and shapes that are used to communicate the same ideas in another culture’s dialect. This is not the same as second language acquisition becuse we don’t acquire individual languages – we acquire language. That is, we acquire the ability to interact with our world by means of purposeful sounds and symbols. We know that if we combine the sounds /t/, /r/ and /i:/ other people (and we ourselves) will know that we are talking about . From there, I want to suggest, it is not the same process to learn that when we want to convey this concept while on holiday in Granada, we take on board the fact that the local people will look puzzled by the combination of sounds /t, /r/, /i:/ and will look sufficiently enlightened if, instead, you produce a combination of the sounds /a/, /r/, /b/, /o/, /l/.
OK. Great. But what does this mean for us as English language teachers? Well, I think it has two main implications: the first is that we should spend less of our time scurrying around trying to understand the distinction between first language acquisition and second language acquisition. Nor should we try too much to understand first language acquisition – of course, it is interesting, but it is also an inevitability that once attained allows users to speak any language that they are successful in learning. It follows from this that we shouldn’t worry too much about replicating in our classrooms the environments that facilitated first language acquisition – that is, I am beginning to suspect that we don’t need to get too dogmatic about dogme. Second language acquisition doesn’t necessarily happen most successfully in the kind of naturalistic environment that is a sin qua non for first language acquisition. Instead, I want to argue, we should be looking at more basic psychological theories about motivation and behavioural traits. There will be more about this when I gather my thoughts on brainwashing. In brief, we stand to gain more from a more detailed understanding about how the brain works than we do from a more detailed understanding on how the language learning part of the brain works.
Secondly, I want to suggest that this view of language learning emphasises the learning of our endeavour. Students don’t need to be given the opportunity to acquire language – language they have already acquired. If language use is a skill, we as managers of students’ skill should be less concerned about language use and more concerned about language knowledge. We should be focused on the learning of knowledge. Our knowledge base, I would argue, is most fruitfully regarded as a collection of chunks of lexis strung together with an understanding of some basic productive grammar. This impacts upon the activities we do in class by allowing for a much more mechanical approach to language teaching. Uurgh! I know…but it means that we need to look for ways of introducing language, drilling it and testing recall. Language learning becomes, for the most part, an endeavour of learning by heart chunks of language and being able to produce them whenever appropriate. Language teaching becomes the endeavour of helping students stay motivated enough to do this. Note that this applies only to those students of ours who are beyond the language acquisition period. For materials writers, this means less of a focus upon activity-based exercises and purposeless grammatical drills and more of a focus on memorisation activities and purposeful lexical drills.
So there you have it: my view that English language teaching as it currently stands is a bottle of smoke: we flatter ourselves that we are setting about a task that is as grand as helping people acquire a new language when really all we are trying to do is help them remember the different codes that their existing language skills need to use to express their concepts to a different group of people. We flatter ourselves by thinking that our endeavour is as grand as rethinking the world when in fact it is allowing students to cling to their view of the world but colouring it with different combinations of sounds. If we focus less on trying to think of innovative ways of getting students involved in language skills and more on innovative ways of helping students perform the rather dull memorisation feats that are necessary for their language learning, we are going to be much closer to the mark. What do you think? Have I strayed too far from the path? Am I a throwback to an unenlightened past? Is it coincidence that I saved these thoughts until such a time that I knew that Scott Thornbury would be on holiday and wouldn’t read them?
As always, they are nascent thoughts and shouldn’t be taken as a definitive statement of how I see things. In other words, if I do a complete U-turn, accusations of hypocrisy and inconsistency should be kept to yourselves. I put forward the thoughts to see if they chime with anyone else or to see if anyone can help me see the errors of my ways. I await your views with trepidation!