Tuesday, 9 April 2013

The blind men and the elephant

There are some good threads running on the TES MFL forum focusing on methodology, where grammar-translation traditionalists and "communicative" types are crossing swords. It has also been pointed out by an astute PGCE student that there may be a lack of clarity in the training of young language teachers about what constitutes effective methodology.

Trouble is, while there is no prevailing panacea method for teaching languages (grammar-translation, audio-lingualism, strong form communicative approach all having been somewhat discredited), there may be a resulting confusion about what works best. How is a young teacher to know how to teach a language in a primary or secondary school?

It reminded me of something the eminent applied linguist Wilga Rivers wrote somewhere; when we try to describe second language learning we are like blind men trying to describe an elephant. I have recently seen the same metaphor used in two introductions to second language acquisition, one edited by Bill VanPatten, the other written by Muriel Saville-Troike.

The reference comes from an Indian legend reworked in a poem by John Godfrey Saxe.

It was six men of Indostan
To learning much inclined,
Who went to see the Elephant
(Though all of them were blind),
That each by observation
Might satisfy his mind.

The First approach'd the Elephant,
And happening to fall
Against his broad and sturdy side,
At once began to bawl:
"God bless me! but the Elephant
Is very like a wall!"

The Second, feeling of the tusk,
Cried, -"Ho! what have we here
So very round and smooth and sharp?
To me 'tis mighty clear
This wonder of an Elephant
Is very like a spear!"

The Third approached the animal,
And happening to take
The squirming trunk within his hands,
Thus boldly up and spake:
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a snake!"

The Fourth reached out his eager hand,
And felt about the knee.
"What most this wondrous beast is like
Is mighty plain," quoth he,
"'Tis clear enough the Elephant
Is very like a tree!"

The Fifth, who chanced to touch the ear,
Said: "E'en the blindest man
Can tell what this resembles most;
Deny the fact who can,
This marvel of an Elephant
Is very like a fan!"

The Sixth no sooner had begun
About the beast to grope,
Then, seizing on the swinging tail
That fell within his scope,
"I see," quoth he, "the Elephant
Is very like a rope!"

And so these men of Indostan
Disputed loud and long,
Each in his own opinion
Exceeding stiff and strong,
Though each was partly in the right,
And all were in the wrong!

So oft in theologic wars,
The disputants, I ween,
Rail on in utter ignorance
Of what each other mean,
And prate about an Elephant
Not one of them has seen! 

So what works?

At the very minimum, in a school context, we something which combines three elements:

1.   A good dose of meaningful target language presented in a structured fashion
2.   Explanation and varied controlled practice
3.   The motivation factor: necessity, good teacher, exam, natural enjoyment

How's that for a start?

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