The Secret DOS

The Little Emperor Strikes Back

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 Image. 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!



26 Jun 2013 - Posted by | Rants and ramblings


  1. In previous posts you have already nailed the fact that knowledge is not emphasised enough in ELT ( although this is true for all subjects esp. in the UK with its almost entirely skills based curriculum).

    Check out the following articles which suggest your instincts here actually have a substantial evidence base behind them:

    “What can we learn from cognitive science and Dan Willingham?”

    “What can we learn from Michel Thomas?”

    “What can we learn from Direct Instruction and Sigfried Engelmann?”

    Also I want to say thank you for your “manifesto” you published the other week. This really got me re-thinking about my practice and energised me to change things for next year.

    Comment by eflblog | 26 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • That is very rewarding to hear and thank you for highlighting the blogposts of I have been trying to get hold of the Joanthan Solity book about Michel Thomas (The Learning Revolution) so that I can discover a bit more about Thomas’s method.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 27 Jun 2013 | Reply

  2. 1. You say “Perhaps .. there is no such thing as second language acquisition”.

    There is. SLA encompasses the learning and loss of second (third, fourth, etc.) languages (L2) by children and adults with differing motivations, abilities and purposes, with varying access to the L2 in a variety of settings. SLA research is used in theoretical linguistics, neurolinguistics, language teaching and psychology. Most SLA theorists are not primarily interested in language teaching, and in some cases they are not at all interested. SLA theories can provide insights into universal pedagogical principles for language teaching, while saying nothing about what teaching procedures should be adopted in any particular situation. An SLA theory might suggest as a universal principle that providing negative feedback is necessary or facilitative, for example, but it will be up to the local practioner to decide which procedures to adopt.

    2. You say “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”.

    There isn’t. Theories of SLA within the UG camp which claim “full access” cannot explain the very widely documented inferior achievement of adults supposedly still fully-equipped with the full innate language learning capacity that served them so well as children. Similarly, the impossibility of learning some specifiable L2 items from positive evidence alone, and the widely-documented persistence of errors in learners’ interlanguages despite ample opportunity to acquire both indicate that there are maturational constraints on language development. See Long (2007, pp. 4 to 15) for details. So, as you say yourself: “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”.

    3. You suggest that “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”.

    As you know, I’m sure, Bachman suggests that knowledge of language consists of various types of competence:

    1. Language Competence, composed of Organisational Competence, itself divided into (a) Grammatical competence: knowledge of vocabulary, morphology, syntax, and phonology/graphology; and (b) Textual competence: “includes the knowledge of the conventions for joining utterances together to form a text, which is essentially a unit of language – spoken or written – consisting of two or more utterances or sentences that are structured according to rules of cohesion and rhetorical organisation.” (Bachman, 1990: 88)

    2. Pragmatic competence, which deals with the speaker’s or writer’s ability to achieve his purpose through his utterances. It consists of (a) Illocutionary competence: the ability to express and interpret the function performed in saying something; and (b) Sociolinguistic competence: sensitivity to the conventions of language use that are determined by the features of the specific language use context; it enables us to perform language functions in ways that are appropriate to that context.

    3. Strategic competence consists of three components: (a) Assessment component: enables us to identify the information needed for a communicative goal, decide what resources to use, evaluate our interlocutor, and evaluate the outcome; (b) Planning component: enables us to marshal the necessary items from language competence; (c) Execution component: draws on the relevant psycho physiological mechanisms to implement the plan.

    The framework gives some idea of the possible scope of SLA and immediately suggests that very different types of knowledge and abilities are involved. Your suggestion thus strikes me as far too simplistic and unlikely to provide the best framework for syllabus design or teaching methodology. If one accepts the claim that there are maturational restraints on adult language learning, then I suggest that the argument put forward by Robinson, Nick Ellis and Long that there “fragile” features of the L2 form that need attention, and that drawing learners’ attention to language as object – grammar, vocab., collocations and so on – in context, with the linguistic sequence and timing determined by the learners’ internal syllabus, not an externally imposed one, during otherwise meaning-based lessons (e.g. task-based or content-based), is a better contender than yours for how best to help adult “second” language learners.

    Long, M. (2007) Problems in SLA. London: Lawrence Earlbaum.
    Bachman, L. (1990) Fundamental Considerations in Language Testing. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Comment by geoffjordan | 26 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thank you for taking the time to engage in this, Geoff. Your ready access to some of this knowledge is quite astounding! Certainly what you say is the reason that I am hesitant to declare myself unwaveringly for the tentative suggestions that I put forward but my relative ignorance in this area keeps me wondering.

      Of course I do not dispute the existence of SLA as an academic concept – but wonder primarily if it is a justified academic concept? Just because people are researching it doesn’t make it real. Might it not be, I wonder, that we never really achieve the fluency of our first language because of constraints on our memory systems and the interference of the hard-wired medium of communication? Plus, of course, the brain’s tendency to work in an efficient manner and settle for half measures if half measures are seen to be sufficient?

      I am more convinced by your suggestion that I am being too simplistic and proposing a view that is hardly the best framework for syllabus design or teaching methodology. And yet it is the search for a simplistic enough view of language teaching that drives me onwards! For the time being, I am less than convinced by the argument that there exists an internal syllabus; less than convinced that the internal syllabus is a grammatical one. For now, and I have to emphasise the temporary nature of this position(!), I am interested in the theory that (second) language learning might be no more complex than the memorisation of numerous chunks of lexis alongside the sociolinguistic knowledge of their appropriacy. I have no doubt that if I am to be swayed by any other perspective, it is likely to be with no small thanks to the efforts of people such as yourself.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 27 Jun 2013 | Reply

      • Hi again,

        I sympathise very much with your doubts about the academic concept of SLA. It’s a very young area, still not doing very well in its attempts to establish itself as a separate well-defined domain distinct from education and applied linguistics. What you suggest about constraints on our memory systems and the interference of the hard-wired medium of communication might well be the case. I was also surprised that you made no mention of embodied cognition, which you got me hooked on last month, which I’m still reading about, and which just might “turn” SLA research a bit.

        As for interlanguage, I for one don’t suggest that it’s a “grammatical syllabus” and “syllabus” is, of course a metaphor here, which I can see reasons for objecting to. What SLA research does suggest (tho certainly not prove) is that L2 learners go through stages of development which can be seen as the development of an increasingly sophisticated mental representation of the L2. That this interlanguage development includes the assimilation of lexical chunks seems to me beyond dispute.

        Anyway, as usual, you fly your kite with your usual grace and intelligence, and, best of all, it makes us all think about what we’re doing.

        Just BTW, since I can’t write to you privately, thank you for mentioning my post on “Why bother with ELT?”. Thanks to your existential crisis traffic on my blog tripled that day. It also doubled yesterday, and I’ve just noticed a mention in your Twick or Tweet section, which no doubt explains that too!

        Comment by geoffjordan | 27 Jun 2013

  3. Various questions popped into my head while reading this – not least, how do you know Scott Thornbury’s holiday plans?
    Apologies if it has already been linked to elsewhere, but have a look at Alan Maley’s Winnowing the Past chapter in Meaningful Action (Google Books) for examining what, if anything, we can learn from outmoded methods.

    Comment by Paul Duffy | 26 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks for the reading recommendation. The book had already come up on my books-I’d-like-to-buy-if-I-had-more-money (hehehe) list. This recommendation (plus the google books reference) pushes me ever closer…

      Comment by thesecretdos | 27 Jun 2013 | Reply

  4. Another bold post, and the idea that we shouldn’t bother with a distinction between first and second language acquisition is an interesting one. I think there probably is evidence to suggest that speed or ability of language acquisition is more directly related to the age of the learner than whether it’s their first/second/third… language (Bilingualism, The critical period hypothesis etc). I’ll leave the neurolinguistic arguments to others, though.

    I would say though that the different competences mentioned by Geoff above would conflict with any argument that language acquisition is just about remembering stuff. I’m also slightly unsure about what’s being assumed of the learners. If all they need to do is identify which sounds, or words, or phrases are needed to express the thing they already know how to express in their first language, this assumes that they already know how to express whatever they want (and whatever they will ever want) in their first language. Many of my students had a very limited education in their home countries and, in order to move up the levels in English (never mind performing tasks outside the classroom) they need to do things in English that they have never done in their own language.
    It’s all very well saying we need more focus on knowledge than on the development of skills, but if the students don’t have the skills in the first place then teachers need to help develop them. Where I agree with you on the skills thing is that activity types that are supposed to develop skills are really just practice activities and not particularly helpful; what students need is knowledge FOR skills development.
    But back to your post. If you consider young learners or adults with limited educational (or life) experience, I would suggest that there’s a lot more to it than simply transferring/translating existing knowledge into the target language and then remembering it. But I would suggest that even highly literate adult learners also use (or aspire to using) English in contexts that they haven’t used L1 in before.
    Obviously, as I now work in an FE “ESOL”-y environment there is an education/citizenship agenda that needs to be addressed. But I still think that your “EFL”-y groups of highly educated lawyers and businessmen could occasionally do with a bit of education, even if it’s just to address the pragmatic competence that Geoff mentioned earlier.

    Comment by stevebrown70 | 26 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Hi Steve, I’m also in ESOL. I agree that many ESOL students do need a focus on skills, but you shouldn’t divorce knowledge from skills, rather they should be interweaved.

      A purely anecdotal incident: recently I had a Level 1 (i.e. B2) ESOL class that was very challenging as a teacher. They hardly understood anything on the syllabus, not just because their language wasn’t up to scratch, but because they didn’t understand how or why you would want to look at newspaper articles or discuss things beyond one’s every day experiences. They found it difficult to adjust to reading longer texts and writing longer articles. Of course, part of this is due to their prior limited education. However, every one of those students had been through the college and managed to pass exams at Entries 1, 2 and 3 yet were totally unprepared for the next stage. Why? In my opinion it’s because they spent the previous 3 years with a skills-based curriculum that had a focus on fun, games, songs, kinaesthetic activities and bite-sized grammar. Their knowledge of UK life beyond their local community was minimal. So they had the skills to get through entry level exams, but not enough knowledge to successfully manage the next stage.

      Hate to link to the same site again (Pragmatic Education) but I think this explains the problem well. Yes, it’s about GCSE English, but with a little imagination you can determine how it could apply to an ESOL or EFL context:

      “How knowledge is vital for skills in English”

      Comment by eflblog | 26 Jun 2013 | Reply

      • Thanks, eflblog. Is there a blog to live up to the promise of your name? I’d love to read it.

        Comment by thesecretdos | 27 Jun 2013

      • I used to have a blog but then an MA / work got in the way. Watch this space though. I can feel something coming on over summer.

        Comment by eflblog | 29 Jun 2013

    • Hi Steve
      Thanks, as ever, for the comment. You write that “there probably is evidence to suggest that speed or ability of language acquisition is more directly related to the age of the learner than whether it’s their first/second/third… language”. My point is that there might be less sense in looking to measure the speed or ability of second language acquisition and more sense in questioning whether “second language acquisition” is really language acquisition.

      I am not sure that I am suggestion that language acquisition is about remembering stuff (although I am irresistibly attracted by the simplicity of the claim). What I might be suggesting, I think, is that language learning is primarily about remembering stuff. What is being assumed of the learners is that they have a desire to communicate but lack the knowledge necessary to communicate effectively in the language of another culture. That they may also lack experience with any language is acknowledged, but this is less about language teaching as it is envisaged by ELT and more about language teaching as it is envisaged by conventional education. I would question the use of differentiating between target language and just “language”. It’s hard to speak very clearly about this when we are talking in such abstract terms. In short, in my post above, I tried to make clear that I am not talking about language acquisition, but about second language learning (which presupposes that students are already coming to the classroom with developed speech, language and communication skills).

      Comment by thesecretdos | 27 Jun 2013 | Reply

  5. What is a skill? Is it knowing how to do something? ie knowledge? And when does skill become creativity? And can creativity be taught?

    Comment by Paul Duffy | 26 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • The call of the train means that there isn’t time to do this justice. Wikipedia offers this rather indisputable definition of a skill: “A skill is the learned ability to carry out pre-determined results often with the minimum outlay of time, energy, or both. In other words the abilities that one possesses.”

      My view is that knowledge is not synonymous with skill, but is an essential prerequisite for a skill. My other view is that creativity is an entirely different thing altogether.

      I have other views too, I should make clear.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 27 Jun 2013 | Reply

  6. I like the distinction drawn in one of the links which elfblog posted above, the one by the English GCSE teacher teaching Animal Farm. The SKILL to interpret Orwell’s novel is all well and good: to understand the layers of meaning, to see the allegoric nuances etc, but without the KNOWLEDGE of who Stalin and Trotsky were, what happened in the Russian Revolution and Civil War etc then this skill is redundant. Likewise, with the knowledge, but without the skills, the novel loses much of its meaning.

    Comment by Paul Duffy | 28 Jun 2013 | Reply

  7. A. I am NOT on holiday. B. You are right to highlight the huge memory load implicated in language learning (whether first second, or nth) but I challenge your suggestion that memorized language is, ipso facto, available language. That is to say, I dispute your claim (as I understand it) that learned language can become useable language without first undergoing repeated cycles of retrieval, production and creativity (aka practice, and, principally, practice in conditions that approximate real language use). We have all encountered learners who have spent years memorizing language items but are incapable of deploying them appropriately, intelligibly, or creatively. The dogme classroom, which (alarmingly) you reject, aims to maximise opportunities for just this kind of deployment.

    Comment by Scott Thornbury | 29 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Oh. Ah. Um. You should be on holiday. You certainly deserve one! The format in which I am working now does not allow me to see what I wrote, but I will happily revoke any assertion that implied that memorised language is available language. I still buy into the idea that availability is dependent -in the main- on repeated encounters and plenty of opportunities to manipulate, take apart and recreate from new. While I don’t mean to reject dogme, I think I am re-writing its place in my language teaching. I suspect that I am beginning to understand and accept what many others have always known. The jarring perspectives might make it seem like a rejection, whereas it is more of a realignment. Dogme as a means of generating texts makes perfect sense. And once the texts have been created, they can become teaching and learning tools. This is hardly controversial, I am sure. But I have always struggled with the but-what-am-I-teaching-and-where-am-I-going of Dogme. It focused (I focused too much on the skill and not enough on the knowledge. Dogme was a means of creating texts and through helping in the construction of those texts, I felt that my work was done. Not so much any more. Dogme can create the texts and then I can get involved as the teacher and mine them productively. I can go back to the texts and work them thoroughly. This is, I imagine, what your Dogme was and is; it is what my a dogme is becoming…some twenty years later!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Jul 2013 | Reply

  8. Your post, which Paul brought to my attention, intrigued me in a few ways.

    My first thought was if this was mostly an elaborate troll (knowing full well that holiday or no holiday Scott would read the post).

    Second, whether the distinction between first and second language acquisition exists and if it truly matters. I’m not entirely convinced either way. What is more surprising are your conclusions…

    Thirdly (and this relates to the trolling) is that you would draw from this that all students need then is a series of dull memorisation tasks and lexical drills. I agree that the memorisation (knowledge) aspect of language learning is vital, but how do we decide what that knowledge should be? My own experience of language learning has always been at its most effective when finding myself in a situation that I can’t communicate, finding out how to communicate and then using that new knowledge to communicate, added to my body of language (whether it be language or second language).

    The emphasis of all of this is on the need for new language, and the opportunity to use it. Surely that then is where the emphasis of our classes should be – finding ways to create that need as much as possible and then helping our students expand their knowledge by being on hand to provide them with the relevant language they need. The repetition and drilling aspects are best left to outside the class when the students attempt to use that language as much as possible in real life situations. The more opportunities they have to use it, the more likely they’ll remember it (and by definition, the motebuseful it will be). A situation not dissimilar to first language acquisition, with the teacher (classroom based or otherwise – my wife, coworkers and friends acted as my teachers) taking on the role of parents if you like.

    Comment by James Cleere (@masjamez) | 30 Jun 2013 | Reply

    • Thanks, James. If anything, my surprising conclusions are intended to question the tendency of ELT to rely on anecdotal, individual assumptions that are based upon a teacher’s perceptions of how language works. And you seem to be letting your assumptions interfere a little too much with your reading! I am most certainly NOT advocating any dull memorisation drills. Why should any educator want to bring a little bit of dullness into the classroom???

      Many of us work and live in contexts where there a no real life opportunities to use language outside the classroom; many of us work in contexts where, despite the opportunities for language use, the teacher who expects their students to engage in English language use outside the classroom is living in cloud cuckoo land. In these contexts, as in any other, I think the place for repetition and drilling is within the classroom. I think the place for language use is also within the classroom. I don’t think that we need to abandon language use in order to make room for language practice. My rapidly evolving view is that it’s a question of proportion: these days teachers are convinced that memorisation and drilling must be boring because they are inauthentic. And so they avoid them in favour of some vague, unstructured, directionless freedom. Which of course is a lot easier to do than to have to answer the questions, “What shall I teach? How shall I teach it? How shall I research it? How shall I test take-up? How shall I measure it?” In short, everything that you imagine we are paid to do in our role as language teachers.

      The point I make with language acquisition is simply that what you advocate -mirroring first language acquisition- overlooks the obvious fact that there is no reason at all to think that mirroring first language is a particularly useful strategy. We already have language. We don’t need to acquire it again. I don’t need to learn that there is a way of referring to a tree without pointing to it or drawing a picture of it; I don’t need to try to work out that certain phonemes can be rearranged to refer to things; I just need to know which sounds to make in the target language. Then I need something to leave it imprinted on my brain. This something doesn’t need to be lots of free conversations, loaded with hundreds of other new things to notice. I just need to drill it, memorise it, practise it.

      You argue for one particular type of emphasis, but I am going to disagree. Te emphasis should be on the targeting of productive language and the repeated exposure in imaginative ways to old/semi-new language. We don’t need to sweat blood trying to create a need for new language. We need to draw attention to the ways in which old language works. And we can do this by creating contexts in which we explore and re-explore this old language. We can aid students by helping them to explore their lives and seeing how this language might be helpful to them in the different contexts in which they find themselves. A situation markedly different from first language acquisition. I would never dream of asking a child if they could think of a situation in which this language might serve them particularly well; nor ask them to reflect on their experience to date and to identify times when they would have benefited from knowing this language; nor to imagine a new scenario wherein which they could shoehorn this new language. I’d do this in a language classroom though – creating contexts where the students were expected to artificially manipulate their knowledge of the new language and to try and link it to the “real world” outside.

      The idea of trying to hook into the vestigial traces of a natural acquisition process that had once taken place in the hopes that it might be kick-started again and I could claim credit for nature taking its course strikes me as being not dissimilar to the plot of Frankenstein…!

      Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Jul 2013 | Reply

  9. Thanks for the lengthy response!

    And you’re probably right that I’m letting my assumptions cloud my reading, but that’s probably because I find the idea that we can make the process of memorisation innovative (and by implication interesting) to be as far in cloud cuckoo land as expecting students to engage in English outside the classroom.

    Regarding that particular point, I’d also argue that thinking students are going to make any significant improvement in English without some use outside is also farcical. I doubt many student can come to class for a couple of hours a week and make much progress in gaining the language knowledge they need – and besides if they don’t have any opportunity to do so, why are they bothering in the first place. Opportunities to use language in a meaningful way, for an increasing number of contexts, are also increasing. As communication (in any language) moves increasingly online (this conversation wouldn’t have happened 10 years ago), the easier it is for students to use the language they learn, wherever they are.

    The main area that confuses me is whether we are regarding learning English as SLA or just language acquisition, and whether it makes a difference. If there is just language, then I don’t see how expanding on that with new ‘knowledge’ so to speak is any different, except we are doing the bulk of language ‘expansion’ as an adult rather than a child. If there is such a thing as SLA, then mimicking first language acquisition seems natural, although we are again doing so at different stages of cognitive development, and with differing motivations.

    Regardless, from my own personal experience (so yes, anecdotal at best) of learning a language (as opposed to teaching one), the most important point is the need that arose to prompt the desire to gain new language. For example, (a true story), when I first moved to Indonesia, I met a beautiful woman who spoke virtually no English (and, like many English teachers I was your typical monoglot). I wanted to ask her out (a need was created), so I asked people how to do so (accessing available resources to gain knowledge), I asked her out (putting the new knowledge to use), so she smiled and said no, sorry I don’t speak your language (I got feedback) and new need was created. This cycle continued countless times until a) I became reasonably fluent, and b) we got married. By that stage my Indonesian was sufficient to have the conversations with my wife that I wanted to, and the needs essentially stopped, and my language has plateaued ever since.

    So we see a basic cycle –
    1. A need is created
    2. Knowledge is gained to meet that need
    3. The knowledge is put to use
    4. Feedback is received
    5. A new need is created
    6. …

    This is relevant whether it’s first or second language, whether it’s English, Indonesian, Spanish or a computer programming language such as html or JavaScript (which ate my current languages to be learnt).

    Whatever it is, language only truly becomes memorable when the need is first created. That need is most effective when it comes directly from the learner, as then it is much more likely to be put to use – the it is, the more likely it will be remembered. I would also argue that the memorisation process also needs all the above steps – ie the need to use the language again is created, and step 2 eventually becomes accessing memory after enough use, rather than external resources.

    Perhaps the main point we disagree on then is where the need comes from, and whether the language is new or not – I would argue that the need has to come from the student, and the teacher’s primary role is to react to that, providing input at stage 2 as appropriate (which may or may not be new), and feedback at stage 4 (which a leaner is hard pressed to get outside the classroom) which may or may not create a new need. Depending on the initial need, this may be new language, or practice (aiding memorisation) of old – ideally a bit of both?

    Maybe we’re arguing for the same thing all along.

    Comment by James Cleere (@masjamez) | 01 Jul 2013 | Reply

    • It was “good evening” before, now it’s “good morning”. Thank you or sticking in there/here with the debate.

      I couldn’t agree with you more regarding the need to extend learning beyond the classroom walls. There’s a slight nuance to this though. Where you write, “thinking that students are going to make any significant improvement…without some use outside is also farcical”, I would adapt it to “students thinking that they are going to make any significant…”. “Why are they bothering?” you (and I) ask. But I suspect that we both know the answers: because English is an international language, because their parents made them, because they want to go to live/work in the UK/USA, because it is necessary at work, because it is necessary to find work. And sometimes, and usually most productively, because they are in love.

      So where do we disagree? Like you, I’m not sure that we do – at least in substance. To clarify, I am not arguing that foreign language learning is part of SLA or just LA. We have already acquired language and all we need to do now is to learn the new sounds and shapes that go with the language we are trying to learn. To borrow from Krashen (in a way that he would no doubt reject completely), I think I am taking a position that says that acquisition is not the goal of a language teacher – learning is. Of course, I am not so naive as to think that just memorisation is enough. As I wrote elsewhere (I don’t know if it’s above or below this!), there is still a need for repetition and creativity. The one definite area of disagreement between us is that I am of the opinion that yes, it can be made interesting, fun, memorable and innovative. I have no doubt that your lessons could be described as this which makes me think that we are not disagreeing about anything concrete but rather that I am not explaining myself very well.

      We most certainly do not disagree about the source of motivation, although I am more dubious about your gloss on the whole thing. It smacks a little too much of confirmation bias if you ask me! In other words, you have looked at a very complex psychological phenomenon and explained it in terms of pretty much exactly how you think the process works. Then you conclude the process must work that way because you have concluded that it does! You are not alone in this – it is a trait typical to humans (although I realise that this makes me sound like Spock). Personally, I tend to think that the main reason that we do anything is connected to some sort of evolutionary drive. If it is possible to create a perceived benefit of learning language, students will learn. The only thing is that the benefit can’t be some sort of abstract nonsense like “English is an international language” [limbic system thinks, “Who gives a sh*t?”]. The other only thing (???) is that the perceived benefit needs pretty quick pay-off. There’s nothing more primal than the need to keep the species going so “love” does tend to be a very powerful motivating force. It is also true that a similar effect can be gained not only by creating perceived benefits but by creating perceived threats if the language is not learnt (exclusion from the group, rejection from one’s peers, withholding the approval of the group leader). It might not be a very pleasant reality for us liberal civilised types, but there is a distinct evolutionary benefit from being in with the pack and being allowed to sit near the campfire. So – we agree to about the need to create a need.

      So, my argument goes, if you can create a real and immediate need to engage in the process of learning a second language, now what? If you’d asked me about a year ago, I would have said that the next thing is *just* to provide as much exposure and opportunities for learning as you can. Nature would take care of the rest and it would be pretty much outside your control anyway. I would have said things like, “Learning a language is like driving a car – the more you do it, the easier it gets.” My lesson plans were non-existent prior to the lesson and emerged slowly throughout the lesson. In contrast, these days I would say that the next thing is to provide language-rich texts as much as possible and to create as much awareness about what the language is doing in the texts. I would say that the opportunities for learning emerge from the rich and varied ways in which you can recycle and recycle the language that you have chosen to focus in on. I would say that language teaching cannot abdicate the responsibility to nature – nature has already done its bit and created animals that are capable of encapsulating whole worlds, universes, cosmoses (?) in symbols. Your job as a language teacher is primarily to impart the knowledge necessary for the uptake of the new symbol system and to create an environment where uptake can be rehearsed safely. I would say/have said that “Language learning is less like driving a car and more like learning the piano – the more you practise the scales and the chords, the more ability you will have to use this knowledge in innovative styles.” In this analogy learning the scales and the chords is a metaphor for learning the lexical chunks and some basic frameworks that you find in the texts. In this way of viewing language teaching, plans are necessary before the lesson because it is unrealistic to expect any teacher to be able to spontaneously select useful language from flowing text. The teacher might *think* that she can, but unless she is prepared to question that assumption with some sort of research, she has no way of *knowing* that she can. Language teaching is not all about sitting down at the piano and bashing away in the hope that music emerges (although I concede that this may be closer to how language *learning* works). Language teaching is about providing the scales and the chords and helping students get their fingers around them and be able to produce them ever more fluently. Of course, the fact that music is the food of love can only lend weight to my argument.

      Comment by thesecretdos | 01 Jul 2013 | Reply

  10. I studied for a year in Salamanca, Spain. There are thousands of international students in Salamanca, due to its prestigious university (the Oxford of Spain, etc and so on). There are many, many ‘romances’ between locals and internationals (I don’t have exact statistics!). It’s all reminiscent of the ‘sleeping dictionaries’ of the days of empire. There are virtually no English language schools in Salamanca – uniquely for a large town in Spain. There is no need for English language schools there. Maybe we’re all in the wrong line of work.

    Comment by Paul Duffy | 01 Jul 2013 | Reply

    • Haha! I can see a veritable fortune waiting to be made in the field of Language Dating Agencies. What to call it? “Awkward Conversations”? “Stumbling and fumbling”?

      Comment by thesecretdos | 02 Jul 2013 | Reply

  11. I like the piano analogy, but of course the notes and chords on a piano are extremely limited when compared with the morphemes and phonemes in a language. One can learn all the notes and chords of a piano in a relatively short space of time, and combine them to make all kinds of tunes:

    Can ‘cosmos’ be plural? If the cosmos is everything…?

    Comment by Paul Duffy | 01 Jul 2013 | Reply

  12. Well…there are twice as many notes on a typical piano as there are phonemes in English. If we take the language as primarily a spoken phenomenon with artificial curls and swirls to denote it graphically, language learning is MUCH easier than piano-learning.

    And yes, surprisingly, cosmos can be plural and, even more surprisingly, the plural is as I guessed (my source is impeccable: Haven’t you seen Star Trek? You would have been better to address my tautology – cosmos is, I am told, the Greek word for the Roman word universe. Proving that you learn something new every year.

    Comment by thesecretdos | 02 Jul 2013 | Reply

  13. Very good to see you duck and weave with such grace, secret one. You began with ” 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”. You moved considerably. You agree, I think, that we need, as teachers, to do more than lead students through “dull memorisation”.

    But, of course, what interests me more is your view of SLA (as opposed to teaching). Just because we’ve done it all before for our L1 (and L2 & 3, etc., for those who, as kids, learned more than one language) doesn’t mean the same process is available for adults learning a foreign language. Sorry, but it’s as plain as that. However mistaken SLA researchers might be in the various directions they’re taking, they mostly agree that there is a critical period, and that after that it’s a different ball game. What interests me is your suggestion that the different L2 ball game is tied to the first one thru embodied cognition. Now there’s the rub, isn’t it?

    Comment by Geoff Jordan | 09 Jul 2013 | Reply

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