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Language Acquisition

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"Eclectic", remarks Atkinson (1988, p. 42), "is one of the buzz words in TEFL at present, in part due to the realization that for the foreseeable future good language teaching is likely to continue to be based more on common sense, insights drawn from classroom experience, informed discussion among teachers, etc., than on any monolithic model of second language acquisition or all-embracing theory of learning . . . ". One problem with this position is that your "common sense" and your "insights" are apt to be different from mine. Another is that "discussion among teachers", though valuable, is often a futile exercise in the blind leading the blind. No one with some knowledge of pedagogy and psychology would advocate a "monolithic model" of anything in teaching today. However, unless one has some theoretical foundation to one's knowledge, one cannot construct a methodology of anything--including of foreign language teaching. The aim of this paper is to examine rudimentarily such foundation, and to propose an eclectic approach to teaching English to speakers of other languages.

Learning theories and TEFL

"It appears counterproductive to dissect language in the same way that biology students might dissect a frog" (Maurice 1987, p. 9). Learners do not expect curriculum designers and teachers to dissect language on the basis of pure linguistic science, but they do expect them to dissect language on the basis of applied linguistics and psycholinguistics to the extent that such analyses throw light on how language is applied and on who will do the applying. The foci, then, are on teaching methodology and learning capacity, rather than on the intricate works of linguisticians. Notes that teachers, moreover, need a functional dose of anthropology, sociology, and cybernetics if they are to grow as professionals. It does not hurt, of course, if they know more than one language and have been in close contact with other cultures.

Now "discussions on teaching methods tend to be plagued by overgeneralizations both with respect to the way they are classified and with respect to the way they are evaluated" (MacKenzie, Eraut, & Jones 1972, p. 124). When one compares pedagogical methods, some startling facts come to light. One, for example, is that methods vacillate between a behavioral approach which considers the learner as a programmable mechanical device, and a humanistic (or pseudo-humanistic) approach which is undisciplined and considers the learner as a malleable self-directed positively motivated and intelligent social and cultural unit. Talk about monolithism!

Two curricula and methodologies are essentially teacher-centered or pre-determined curriculum-centered, as opposed to being learner-centered. They are developed on the basis of a linear and group-addressed program, rather than on a semi-linear or even random program derived from individual learners' feedback. They illustrate the traditional top-dictated organization structure of pre-democratic societies, business management, and state education. Yet, "language is a social as well as an individual phenomenon . . . It mirrors the culture . . . is culturally acquired" (Finocchiaro & Bonomo 1973, p. 1).

Three, in practice, student's overt behaviors are observed and measured, whereas covert behaviors are ignored or lightly passed over or deplored . . . when perceived or intimated by those whose job it is to help modify behavior. To behaviorism, overt behavior is the very subject-matter of psychology, precisely because one can observe it, measure it, and shape it. It is an atomistic theory for which reflexes and the conditioned reflex are the basic units. The trouble is that the human being, though composed of atoms, is a complex system all parts of which are dynamically interrelated. "Atomism is in essence an analytical doctrine. It regards observable forms in nature not as intrinsic wholes but as aggregates" (Encyclopaedia Britannica 1974, p. 2/346). Educators, unfortunately, are not in a position to embrace an atomistic view, because they do not have the tools to identify, analyze, and modify all the overt behaviors which lead to learning or not learning--all the more the covert ones. It makes sense, therefore, that they hew closely to holistic theories which explain the parts (known and unknown) in terms of the whole. The learner is a whole organism, not an aggregate of parts, and the whole may or may not be greater than the sum of its parts.

Functionally, the learner is little concerned with surface structures (unless his goal is exclusively to pass a traditional State examination, or he is studying linguistics). Rather, he is eager to negotiate meanings, that is, to interface meaningfully with deep structures. Structural linguistics' prime concern is the production of "a catalogue of the linguistic elements of a language, and a statement of the positions in which they occur" (McArthur 1992, p. 991), but it fails to refer to meaning--the substance of communication. Even generative grammar focuses on form at the expense of meaning: it is concerned with membership in sets of grammatical sentences (cfr Chomsky). It took the communicative shift of the 1980s in Europe and North America, with its emphasis on the cognitive-code approach, to reject behaviorism and the audiolingual and direct methods. Thus, structuralism, with its exclusive concern with form, gave way to the communicative methods, with their stress on meaning negotiation.

The Strategies

"In response to the perceived weaknesses of both structural and notional/functional syllabuses in producing communicatively competent speakers, the current literature stresses the importance of providing language learners with more opportunities to interact directly with the target language and to acquire it by using it rather than to learn it by studying it" (Taylor 1987, p. 45). The Council of Europe Languages Projects, initiated in 1971, concentrated on the needs of learners, and provided contents for syllabi intended to serve as bases for a Europe-wide scheme (notional/functional approach). In this scheme, some items were to be learned Productively, some receptively. Language, it stated, should center on the learner, be relevant to the learner's life, not remote academic goals, be part of permanent education, be based on participatory democracy, and be communicative. As is often the case with grandiose projects (particularly, of course, political ones), ideals turn



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