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The TSC view of second language acquisition

As I said in my previous blog, there is much to like in the Teaching Schools Council review of MFL pedagogy, but one aspect stood out to me and I'd like to say a bit more about this. The review argues strongly for a skill-acquisition model of second language acquisition: presentation and practice lead to automaticity and long-term acquisition. For many teachers this will make sense since they were usually taught within that general paradigm.

Here is the link to the review once again:

http://tscouncil.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/MFL-Pedagogy-Review-Report-2.pdf

Note this important paragraph about automaticity from the review:

"Automaticity means that, through regular, meaningful practice, learning becomes stored in long-term memory (sometimes known as procedural memory) and can be accessed without conscious thought. Developing automaticity in a language can enable pupils to devote working memory resources to the meaning being conveyed or on noticing or mastering new or more difficult language."

This is fundamental to the review's theoretical bias, but it is fair to say that this view ignores a large body of thought and research which argues that language acquisition does not work in this way at all. I am referring, of course, to those academics and teachers who believe that acquisition is a sub-conscious process which only occurs when learners are exposed to meaningful messages. Stephen Krashen, the best known proponent of this view, calls this the "comprehension hypothesis".

The argument will be familiar to those of you who are interested in these matters, but for those who know less this is how it goes:

Research shows that learners do not acquire grammatical structures in the order they are taught. They develop their own interlanguage (Selinker) the rules of which evolve and are impervious to instruction. For example, just because you teach and practise the perfect tense in French does not mean that students will be able to use it freely and spontaneously. It is argued they they will eventually achieve this mastery but only through exposure to lots of comprehensible input over a period of time. Acquisition is a sub-conscious process, as it is with first language acquisition. Explicit grammar teaching does not produce fluency.

Furthermore, the idea that you can transfer consciously learned structures into long-term memory or "mental representation" is said to be illusory. There is evidence from brain research that consciously learned language and acquired mental representation are stored differently and that it is not clear whether the first can cross the "interface" into the second. Automaticity (the ability to freely produce spontaneous speech) does not evolve from attention to form and practice.

Arguments such as these persuade many scholars that our best bet about second language acquisition at the moment is that you need meaningful input aided by some attention to form. Michael Long refers to this as "focus on form". The same writer argues against what he calls "focus on forms" (with an s) because this neglects meaning and is ultimately a switch-off for most pupils.

The TSC review is essentially arguing for focus on forms, which has been a long-held view in MFL in the UK and goes back to the grammar-translation approach. You see it through numerous textbooks right up to the present day. Grammar is at the heart of the syllabus. Although the TSC review makes reference to providing stimulating content for students (the comparison with Latin teaching is revealing), there is no explicit acknowledgment that skill-acquisition is not the only game in town.

Now, I don't have a major issue with skill-acquisition and it certainly formed part of my own teaching approach. Skill-acquisition also features strongly in our book The Language Teacher Toolkit. However, as a model it has its limitations and the TSC review should have acknowledged them. We do not yet know how languages are acquired, so it would be more honest to accept this fact and to avoid cherry-picking from research, which is what the TSC report does.

For a good presentation of the interface problem and the limitations of "automaticity" (crossing the interface) do have a look at this excellent video by Sara-Elizabeth Cottrell.

http://musicuentos.com/2015/08/blackbox-interfac/


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