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Conscious and unconscious language learning (4)

In this fourth blog I am going to look at developments in North America in the second half of the 20th century. Research and theory there have contributed to a contemporary view of second language learning which has gained considerable currency and which gives preeminence to unconscious learning processes.

The findings of post-Bloomfieldian structural linguistics and the fashion for neo-behaviourism in psychology engendered an interest in language teaching based on the automisation of language habits through pattern practice. The success of the "mim-mem" (mimicry and memorisation) courses of the US Army Specialised Training Program also fostered the belief that language could be "stamped in" by induction and generalisation from the repetition and memorisation of sentences and dialogues. Inherent in such audio-lingual approaches was the view that language was best internalised without explicit reference to rules. One assumes that some kind of unconscious learning process was thought to be at work, but in any case, the argument about what was conscious or unconscious was not considered particularly significant since these notions involved introspection (i.e. making claims about unobservable, internal brain processes) and as such were not data of prime interest.

On the other hand, those who allowed a role for conscious learning techniques were still heard despite the flourishing social sciences of linguistics and psychology. Wilga Rivers (1964) questioned over-reliance on audio-lingual, habit-forming techniques which allowed little or no room for genuinely communicative classroom activities:

   Attention should be given to the re-structuring of situations in the classroom whiuch reproduce as closely as possible the real life communicative situations in the native language (p.157).

Rivers (1975) subsequently distinguished between those classroom activities which concentrated on conscious control of structures and accuracy, and those which emphasised the development of communicative skill (cf. Brumfit in the UK). She labelled these skill getting and skill using respectively.

Carroll (1966) wished to swing the balance back towards consciousness. He coined the phrase cognitive code learning to refer to the view that learners should use their powers of analysis and generalisation in order to "acquire conscious control of the language patterns".

Jakobovits (1970) also rejected audio-lingualism in its pure form:

   Practice theory leads to two possible hypotheses about language acquisition: one is that when a child is exposed to a novel grammatical form he imitates it, the other is that by practising this novel form he stamps it in. The evidence available indicates that both hypotheses are false (p.14).

He claims, therefore, that pattern drilling alone does not serve to automise grammatical habits. His evidence for this belief leads us to the most significant influence on later developments in second language learning theory. Jakobovits once more:

  In ordinary speech we use an infinite variety of patterns, and therefore, since the second language learner could not possibly be drilled on an infinite variety of patterns, he could never develop automised speech (p.21).

The idea that language makes infinite use of finite means was not new, but Chomsky (1965), drawing on this and Cartesian ideas of innate ideas, refocused our attention on the role of the creative learner in the language learning process. Since for the first language learner most utterances we produce or hear are novel, and since we have not been explicitly taught any significant number of linguistic rules, von Humboldt (1836, cited in Chomsky, 1965) had concluded that:

   ... one cannot really teach language but can only present the conditions under which it will develop spontaneously in the mind in its own way (p.51).

Chomsky went on to postulate the existence of a faculté de langage which he christened a Language Acquisition Device (LAD). This device would process linguistic data in obscure and largely unconscious ways to enable a child to produce and understand new data. Chomsky says: is of course necessary to distinuish carefully between these two functions of external data - the function of initiating or facilitating the operation of innate mechanisms and the function of determining in part the direction that learning will take (Chomsky, 1965, p.57).

It is important to remember that Chomsky, in his discussion of language learning, is referring to the child learning their first language. The question arises, however, to what extent the linguistic input affects the course and rate of second language learning - a vital issue for the teacher.

Brown (1973) found that when children acquiring their first language  learn certain grammatical morphemes they tend to do so in the same order (natural order) and that this order is not related to how often the children hear them or to how often parents reward the children for being correct.

Some researchers attempted to show that this would also hold true for second language acquisition. If so, it might be claimed that how teachers select, grade or order linguistic input is not related to success of language learning.

Dulay and Burt (1974) led the search for innate orders of acquisition among second language learners, hoping to replicate Brown's findings. They claimed to find similar natural orders and stated:

   ...any theory or account of language acquisition... must take into account the independent and central contribution of internal mechanisms to the construction of the new language system (p.77)

Dulay and Burt (1978) labelled these internal mechanisms creative construction and re-christened Chomsky's LAD the cognitive organiser. There was now a basis for a model of second language acquisition where unconscious processes would play a fundamental role.

Interestingly, Dulay and Burt (1978) also noted:

   Given the myriad conscious and unconscious internal factors interacting with input to produce learner speech, it may not be possible to isolate these entirely (p. 68)

To conclude this blog, it is interesting to note how terminology varies according to the theoretical climate of the day. Palmer's subsconscious assimilation (1922) corresponds to what Dulay and Burt mean by creative construction. The latter term was used in the Chomskyan mentalist climate where the learner's internal and creative processes are stressed, whereas Palmer's term was coined in the climate of psychological associations which viewed the person more as a passive receptacle for external stimuli.

To be continued....


R. Brown (1973) A First Language. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press
J.B Carroll (1966) "The Contributions of Psychological Theory and Educational Rsearch to the Teaching of Foreign Languages", in Valdman (ed.) Trends in Language Teaching. New York: McGraw Hill, 93-106.
N. Chomsky (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax. Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1974) "Natural Sequences in Child Second Language." Language Learning, Vol. 24 p. 37-53
H. Dulay and M. Burt (1978) "Some Remarks on Creativity in Language Acquisition". In W.C Ritchie (ed.) Perspectives in Neurolinguistics and Psycholinguistics. New York: Academic Press, 175-183
L.A. Jakobovits (1970) Foreign Language Learning: a Psycholinguistic Analysis of the Issues. Rowley, Mass.: Newbery House
H.E. Palmer (1922) The Principles of Language Study. Republished 1964. Oxford, O.U.P.
W. Rivers (1975) A Practical Guide to the Teaching of French. London: O.U.P.


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