Linguistics and Language Learning
Hi there, Steve Kaufmann. Today I’m going to try to be a little controversial. I am sure that I will generate a lot more ‘thumbs down’ than I have in the past. I’m going to talk about linguistics and language learning and the reason is that I discovered through the Internet a person called Amorey Gethin. I’m not sure how his name is pronounced, but it’s someone who taught English as a foreign language for 35 years in Britain. I have put on my blog a link to an article he wrote about rational language teaching and I’m also going to put a link at my blog to an article he wrote called ‘Anti-Linguistics’ or something to that effect. It’s also a book that he published. He is a very clear thinker and who debunks a lot of the unnecessary complication that surrounds the field of linguistics and language teaching.
How relevant do I feel linguistics is to language learning? Answer: Not very. Not very. All these terms like morphology and phonemes and syntax don’t add much to our knowledge of language learning. All of the considerable research that’s been done in various linguistics departments, particularly insofar as applied linguistics is concerned into language learning, hasn’t done much to improve the quality of language instruction. There are fads, as Gethin points out, different fads in language instruction, different fads in linguistics. The fallacy, as he points out, is this attempt to come up with codes or systems or theories to describe what is, in fact, much simpler and more natural and that is how we use language.
A primary example of this unnecessary complication is the famous Chomsky theory of universal grammar, which is one of the mainstays, sort of one of the canyons of linguistics. Some people see him as akin to Darwin in terms of his discovery (according to him a discovery) that we have some innate sort of capability to learn languages and that our ability to learn a language is not just based on the way the brain learns other things; in other words, how the brain develops patterns to deal with all of the experiences that it encounters in life.
His position is that based on his theory of limited stimulus or paucity of stimulus (p-a-u-c-i-t-y, I think it is), that there isn’t enough stimulus simply from our exposure as children to the language to explain the fact that within a few years a child is able to speak grammatically correctly. His position is that there must be some innate ability to sort of understand or identify what is correct grammar and what is not correct grammar and since grammar varies from language to language, there must be a universal grammar, sort of the essence of grammar, that is hardwired in our brains and that then is the secret of why we are able to understand what is correct and not correct.
I have never studied linguistics. I’ve read up on it. I just can’t see how this makes sense. I’ve studied 14 languages. Every language is different, the grammar is different. What is difficult in learning a language, to my mind, would not be this sort of essence of grammar, but all the ways in which different languages are different, all of the exceptions, all of the idiomatic patterns, the vocabulary, that’s a huge part of learning a language. There’s no way that a child is born with some innate universal vocabulary for all the different languages.
For example when you read Pinker or Chomsky, they talk about if a language has this then it has that or we know instinctively that certain word order is not correct. But word order varies all over the place. Again, in the case of Russian, you can actually vary it. To say ‘you have a book’, you say ‘book to you is book’, ‘book is to you’. You can move it around in different ways that would not make sense in English and all of the examples that I see in the examples that Pinker and Chomsky use seem to relate to English.
At any rate, Gethin points out that if the language has X therefore Y are quite incorrect. That Finnish doesn’t conform to it. Pinker had some examples of how you flip the order for questions. Well, in Japanese you say _____. That’s a question, you don’t flip anything. For that matter, in Russian you say _____. ‘I have a book.’ In Japanese you say _____, ‘book is’ or ‘book are’. It doesn’t even specify whether it’s ‘is’ or ‘are’. I mean there are so many varieties. When you read Russian grammar book the complexity, like ‘one’ of something _____, ‘one year’, that’s the nominative singular, _____, that’s the genitive singular of the word for year, but then ‘five or more’ is _____, which is the genitive plural of the word for summer.
Now, I’m sure the Chomsky supporters will say that those variations don’t really matter, but it’s the variations that are difficult, the variations that are so tremendously complex. Any supposed universal essence of grammar would be child’s play compared to the complexity of learning all of these other exceptions and vocabulary, idioms and so forth and so on. If a child can learn all those other things in the first few years of his or her life just by listening and reacting to what the child hears getting it wrong a few times and then, eventually, getting it right, that to me is the bigger job and I think that job is not so very different from what we do as adults when we learn, except that as adults we have some psychological hang ups because we’re afraid to make mistakes and we also have the advantage of having more vocabulary.
The problem with linguistics to me is, in many cases, people who teach languages have been studying linguistics so they are all wrapped up in these theories. So if I Google, for example, ESL and critical thinking, I find millions of pages. I know from experience, having been on this ESL teacher’s forum on the Internet, they love to get into critical thinking. They somehow feel that they can teach someone who is not a native speaker of English critical thinking. Not to me obvious at all that they’re better at critical thinking. It is also not obvious to me that critical thinking is related to language learning. One of my favorite educators Rubem Alves, whom I listened to a lot when I was learning Portuguese, says that when we are reading nothing destroys our interest in reading as much as being asked to analyze what we have read, to answer questions about what we have read.
So, again, I believe that all of this over complication actually discourages language learning. All of the terminology about morphemes and phonemes and syntax and so forth discourages language learning. All of the fads in the classrooms, role playing, getting students who speak the language imperfectly to speak to each other is not effective, as Gethin again points out. Far better they listen to the language as spoken by a native speaker. I should point out as well, as Gethin points out, what happens in linguistics. I think humans like a theory, a system, so then you get the sort high priests of this system.
Marx’s theory of history, which is complete bunk and of course didn’t turn out to be correct, whatever his theory was called, Historical Materialism, whatever it was, stages of different societies and so forth. Yet there are people who firmly believe, who analyze all the events of history and so forth through the prism of this Marxist approach to history. It’s like the thought that the sun revolves around the earth and we had the high priests of that. Yeah, so linguistics is one of those, relatively uninteresting to most people, relatively impractical, but it has that same appeal that Marxism or any other theory has, dogma. It’s sort of intellectually challenging and so people create theories, counter theories and so forth.
Unlike Darwin, the universal grammar theory is not based on observation. It’s based on making an assumption that languages are too complicated to learn based on the limited exposure that the children get, therefore, there must be a universal grammar, but it’s not based on anything that is provable or observable. Why I this important? Because I think the essence of language learning is its simplicity; in other words, we don’t have any universal grammar in our heads.
As second language learners, we’re very much influenced by our first language which limits. We expect the sounds, the structures and so forth to conform to what we learned for our first language which is kind of hardwired in our brain and we need to exposure our brains to as much as possible of this second language so that the brain has a chance to develop another set of patterns to deal with this second language. The more open minded we are, the more we want to, again, attitude, the more we like it.
Our ability to learn is influenced by emotion. This is another thing that Gethin points out. All of these studies of whether language-learning system A is better than language-learning system B, hasn’t the ability to evaluate the emotional commitment of the learner and, therefore, a lot of the results are not that useful. However, I’ll take an example. There was a study by the American Center for Applied Linguistics on the effectiveness of classroom instructional hours on ESL learning, English learning by immigrants, and they showed that it improved depending on the number of hours, but, in fact, in some cases it went down. The more instructional hours, the poorer the results. Why is that? Maybe the instructional hours are quite irrelevant.
What matters more is the emotional commitment of the learners, the extent to which they do things outside the classroom. Do they read on their own? Do they listen on their own? Are they working in an English-speaking environment? These are much more important than the instructional hours, yet most studies on language learning deal with what happens in the classroom. It’s possible that the classroom is the least important factor in terms of language learning success. Again, we had this example in Canada of several thousand Chinese immigrants who were measured after seven years and who had, essentially, made no progress in their language learning despite attending language class.
As I often say, obviously, it’s attitude, number one, time with the language and then developing this ability to notice and massive input. Read, listen and, eventually, speak, write, these are simple. You don’t need to know terms like morpheme, phoneme, syntax or anything else. You don’t need to know about linguistics. All you need to do is to be motivated to learn the language and ingest. Read, listen, as much of it as you can, then start speaking using the language and don’t worry about how you sound and don’t worry about all this other stuff.
So I’m sure that will generate a lot of ‘thumbs down’. I’m looking forward to your comments, bye for now.
Linguistics and Language Learning has been transcribed from Steve’s YouTube channel. The original video aired on July 23, 2013