Monday, July 18, 2011

Are we being loyal to our methodology?

  It seems to me that if you look at the theories that existed in the past about how we learn languages, we   see a lot of how we are teaching today.

In the 50’s and 60’s the leading line of thought was behaviorism.  Behaviorism was focused on what we could record.  The utterance was all that counted and researchers were not interested in the cognitive process that brought that utterance into being.

Derived from experiments on dogs and other animals, behaviorism said that children start with a blank slate and they get everything from their environment.  They learn their patterns of behavior, their personality and even their knowledge through conditioning (this had a good result, do it again; this had a bad result, avoid it next time).

Journal CoverThis is what we are doing with correction.  There is still so much of this going on in the classroom and the results on the affective factors of each student should not be underestimated.  We try and we learn on the results of that attempt.  This school of thinking was unable to explain how students learned to be so creative with the language but it did have a huge effect on how we teach.

In 1964, Jenkins and Palermo[1] timidly put forward a theory that children learn through creating language frames and learning to substitute.  They said that imitation is essential in learning to put together authentic-sounding utterances in this way.

Doesn’t this sound like such a big part of what goes on in the classroom?  We teach a grammar structure and the students practice substituting the verbs and the nouns into the sentence to make it mean what they want it to mean. 

When they published this theory, they admitted their statements to be speculative and premature (p. 143).  I think that their hesitation comes from the fact that they are not describing how children learn their first language but they are putting forward a methodology that is commonly-used in classrooms and textbooks around the world.

Now we are faced with a multitude of approaches and methodologies which are grouped together as Communicative Language Teaching (CLT).  CLT is about helping people to discover the language through communication not through memorization and getting students to enjoy being creative and focusing on competence in communication (performance).

But still the aspects of behaviorism and substituting into frameworks remain in every classroom.  Are these remnants of past ways or just practical differences that remind us that there are differences between first language(s) acquisition and second language acquisition?

[1] Jenkins, J. & Palermo, D. (1964). Mediation processes and the acquisition of linguistic structure.  In U. Bellugi & R. Brown, The Acquisition of Language.  Monographs of the society for research in child development, 29 (Serial no. 92).

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