Skip to main content

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.

References

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



  



Comments

Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

The latest research on teaching vocabulary

I've been dipping into The Routledge Handbook of Instructed Second Language Acquisition (2017) edited by Loewen and Sato. This blog is a succinct summary of Chapter 16 by Beatriz González-Fernández and Norbert Schmitt on the topic of teaching vocabulary. I hope you find it useful.

1.  Background

The authors begin by outlining the clear importance of vocabulary knowledge in language acquisition, stating that it's a key predictor of overall language proficiency (e.g. Alderson, 2007). Students often say that their lack of vocabulary is the main reason for their difficulty understanding and using the language (e.g. Nation, 2012). Historically vocabulary has been neglected when compared to grammar, notably in the grammar-translation and audio-lingual traditions as well as  communicative language teaching.

(My note: this is also true, to an extent, of the oral-situational approach which I was trained in where most vocabulary is learned incidentally as part of question-answer sequence…

Google Translate beaters

Google Translate is a really useful tool, but some teachers say that they have stopped setting written work to be done at home because students are cheating by using it. On a number of occasions I have seen teachers asking what tasks can be set which make the use of Google Translate hard or impossible. Having given this some thought I have come up with one possible Google Translate-beating task type. It's a two way gapped translation exercise where students have to complete gaps in two parallel texts, one in French, one in English. There are no complete sentences which can be copied and pasted into Google.

This is what one looks like. Remember to hand out both texts at the same time.


English 

_____. My name is David. _ __ 15 years old and I live in Ripon, a _____ ____ in the north of _______, near York. I have two _______ and one brother. My brother __ ______ David and my _______ are called Erika and Claire. We live in a _____ house in the centre of ____. In ___ house _____ …

A zero preparation fluency game

I am grateful to Kayleigh Meyrick, a teacher in Sheffield, for this game which she described in the Languages Today magazine (January, 2018). She called it “Swap It/Add It” and it’s dead simple! I’ve added my own little twist as well as a justification for the activity.

You could use this at almost any level, even advanced level where the language could get a good deal more sophisticated.

Put students into small groups or pairs. If in groups you can have them stand in circles to add a sense of occasion. One student utters a sentence, e.g. “J’aime jouer au foot avec mes copains parce que c’est amusant.” (You could provide the starter sentence or let groups make up their own.) The next student (or partner) has to change one element in the sentence, and so on, until you restart with a different sentence. You could give a time limit of, say, 2 minutes. The sentence could easily relate to the topic you are working on. At advanced level a suitable sentence starter might be:

“Selon un article q…

Dissecting a lesson: using a set of PowerPoint slides

I was prompted to write this just having produced for frenchteacher.net three separate PowerPoint presentations using the same set of 20 pictures (sports). A very good way for you to save time is to reuse the same resource in a number of different ways.

I chose 20 clear, simple, clear and copyright-free images from pixabay.com to produce three presentations on present tense (beginners), near future (post beginner) and perfect tense (post-beginner/low intermediate). Here is one of them:





Below is how I would have taught using this presentation - it won't be everyone's cup of tea, especially of you are not big on choral repetition and PPP (Presentation-Practice-Production), but I'll justify my choice in the plan at each stage. For some readers this will be standard practice.

1. Explain in English that you are going to teach the class how to talk about and understand people talking about sport. By the end of the lesson they will be able to say and understand 20 different sport…

Designing a plan to improve listening skills

Read many books and articles about listening and you’ll see it described as the forgotten skill. It certainly seems to be the one which causes anxiety for both teachers and students. The reasons are clear: you only get a very few chances to hear the material, exercises feel like tests and listening is, well, hard. Just think of the complex processes involved: segmenting the sound stream, knowing lots of words and phrases, using grammatical knowledge to make meaning, coping with a new sound system and more. Add to this the fact that in England they have recently decided to make listening tests harder (too hard) and many teachers are wondering what else they can do to help their classes.

For students to become good listeners takes lots of time and practice, so there are no quick fixes. However, I’m going to suggest, very concisely, what principles could be the basis of an overall plan of action. These could be the basis of a useful departmental discussion or day-to-day chats about meth…