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Conscious and unconscious language learning (3)

Continuing my historical overview I am going to look at the post Reform era in Europe and the theoretical basis for the rise of the communicative movement.

As we trace the conscious/unconscious distinction through the 20th century when, by the 1970s, it was rechristened the "learning/acquisition" distinction we can agree with Kelly (1969)

   Few theories of language learning are peculiar to the twentieth century, but modern psychological research has given them a point and clarity they had lacked, while clothing them in language that disguises their relationship to older ideas (p.303).

Following the tradition of H.E. Palmer, despite the predominance of grammar-translation approaches in schools worldwide, F.M Hodgson (1955) maintains that the "feeling of what sounds right" cannot be engendered by grammatical study. More precisely, she states that the acquisition of "new linguistic habits":

   ... can only be done by constant practice, not in making statements about language, but in using it meaningfully (Hodgson, 1955)

With his eclectic approach Palmer had not objected to the use of some translation in the classroom, nor did Hodgson discount the possibility of some rule-giving, following oral practice, but the fundamental belief was that language learning was best facilitated by great use of the second language in the classroom, careful selection and grading, and the use of texts rather than isolated words or sentences. The learner was encouraged to use their inductive powers (conscious or unconscious, the distinction was not made clear) in order to "internalise" language. This general approach maintains a strong current in Europe and has been termed, for example,  "rational direct method" (in Krashen, 1982) or more loosely, an "oral approach".

From the 1970s the principal emphasis was as much on the use of meaning rather than form, as on conscious and unconscious learning, although the two are related. This shift of emphasis is associated with what became known as the "communicative" movement, which had its roots in teaching English as a foreign language as well as speech act semantics, discourse analysis and general linguistics.

Butzkamm and Dodson (1980), for example, distinguished between two types of language use, the first stressing conscious manipulation of forms ("medium orientated"), the second where the learner is genuinely interested in expressing a meaning ("message orientated"). They are careful to point out that message and medium do not represent a dichotomy, but the opposite poles of a continuum:

   Medium- and message-orientated communication is not always a clear-cut either-or matter, but a matter of degrees (p.292).

They stress that formal structural practice is a necessary prerequisite to fluency activities and that:

   Methodological substructure is absolutely vital if the learner is to profit from subsequent communicative activities (p. 299).

Widdowson (1978) drew an analogous, but apparently apparently more watertight distinction between "usage" (where the focus is on conscious, correct grammatical formation) and "use" (where language is used as "appropriate meaningful behaviour" and where conscious attention is moved away from linguistic form (cf. Belyayev and Leontiev, from the previous blog). The implication is that second language learning is more likely to be effective when genuine messages are being communicated, when there is a need to communicate and when language is therefore "embedded in events". As soon as language becomes an abstract symbolic structure, isolated from the real world, it becomes more difficult to apprehend.

It is easy to see, in this context, how the information gap task and task-centred oral work became staples of modern communicative language teaching.

The influence of the philosophers Austin and Searle is also notable in this context. Searle (1969), following Austin, postulated that speech which carries "force", i.e. which carries out a purposeful function as well as having propositional content, is more "serious" and is more likely, some have concluded, to be easily learned. A "speech act" is an utterance which carries force as well as propositional content. The argument runs as follows: "serious" utterances are those which carry an "intention to mean", which actually "do" or "achieve" something and such language is more likely to be internalised. As Hawkins (1981) put it:

   The motor that propels language acquisition seems to be the drive to "do things with words" (p.210).

Hawkins believed that:

   Exchanges in the foreign language classroom... are not uttered with intention to mean (ibid).

To sum up, conscious attention to meaning rather than form will best facilitate second language acquisition. When language is used as a tool it will be learned more quickly. This view is echoed frequently elsewhere:

Hirst (1974), in his book on the school curriculum, writes:

   Learning a concept is like learning to play tennis, not like learning to state the rules and principles that govern play (p.125).

Searle (1969) writes:

   Purely formal study (of language) is necessarily incomplete. It would be as if baseball were studied only as a formal system of rules and not as a game.

Brumfit (1984) adopted a similar position in referring to "accuracy" and "fluency" activities in the classroom. The former aim to develop correct use, whilst the latter aim to develop communicative ability. This is a handy distinction for teachers when they plan their lessons.

In the next blog in this series, I shall look at some important North American perspectives on the conscious/unconscious issue.


J.L. Austin (1962) How to do things with words. Oxford; O.U.P.

C. Brumfit (1984) Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching. Cambridge: C.U.P
W. Butzkamm and C.J. Dodson (1980) "The Teaching of Communication: from Theory to Practice". I.R.A.L. (p.289-309)
E.W. Hawkins (1981) Modern Languages in the Curriculum. Cambridge: C.U.P.

P. Hirst (1974) Knowledge and the Curriculum. London: Routledge and Paul.
F.M. Hodgson (1955) Learning Modern Languages. Routledge and Kegan paul. Republished 1976 by Portway Education
L.G. Kelly (1969) 25 Centuries of Language Teaching: 500 B.C. - 1969. Rowley, Mass.: Newbery House
S.D. Krashen (1982) Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Pergamon Press

J. Searle (1969) Speech Acts. Cambridge: C.U.P
H.G. Widdowson (1980) "Models and Fictions", Applied Linguistics. Vol. 1, No. 2, p. 165-169



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