(1992) "Language Teaching in the Nineties: New Foundations for Old Principles". In: Bird, N. & Harris, J. (Hg.): Quilt and Quill. Achieving and Maintaining Quality in Language Teaching and Learning. Hongkong: Institute of Language in Education, Education Department, 111-121.
 

Language Teaching in the Nineties: New Foundations for Old Principles

 


 

Introduction: confessions of self-doubt

According to Freud modern man has to accept three major grievances in life: the Copernican expulsion of man from the central, focal point in the world; the disappointment caused by Darwin's discovery whereby man can no longer look upon himself as a unique and incomparable being created in the image of God; and the disillusionment which Freud himself caused us by showing how man's intellect and reason is so shamefully dependent on dark, subconscious forces.

Similar self-doubts must torment all of those who pursue foreign language teaching as a modem science. We have a double grievance in life. lt is well-known that foreign language learning can develop of its own accord. People can become multilingual without instruction based on systematic research. Another embarrassment to today's experts is due to the fact that there have always been teachers, over the centuries, who have taught foreign languages effectively without the benefit of a modem science to support them. Thus, people have leamed and people have taught effectively without the modern expertise we have been creating in this century. Here are two good reasons to be modest about modem achievements.

The outstanding fact is that we build on and work with the specific language faculties of our mind that are our natural endowment. Subjects like mathematics or history depend to a much greater extent on the discoveries and achievements of great men and women throughout the ages. By contrast, men have always been great linguists, in the sense that they could command one or more languages, if the need arose. Like the little optician in our eye who makes the most complicated computations without our being aware of it, there is a little linguist in our brain who helps us to structure and make sense of the complex noises that come from our mouths and those of our fellow men.

1. Understanding language learning

It goes without saying that it would be folly to ignore our little linguist who pilots us, for example, through the intricacies of grammar, and even greater folly to try to thwart him. However, the other extreme, i.e. to leave everything to nature and simply "not to interfere with language learning'" (Newmark and Reibel) is no viable alternative. Unlike animals, man has to create himself in order to be. Our inbom skills, from walking to talking have to be brought out and cultivated. Man does not learn to speak overnight, but rather over years as a result of meticulous dialogue between himself as a child and his guardians. There are, of course, characteristic differences between skilled behaviours such as seeing, walking, talking, reading and writing. The construction of visual space, of contours and colours is to a much greater extent preprogrammed and learning to read and write needs more special training than learning to talk, although learning to talk is the greater achievement.

It may well be true that in order to be a good Christian, you need not master theology. A good foreign language teacher, however, needs first and foremost an understanding of how this little linguist proceeds, with what we have to feed him to keep him happy. In other words, he needs to understand how humans leam languages, in the family, in the streets, in fact wherever learners are thrown back on their own resources, as well as in classrooms. I do not think that this contradicts what I said in the beginning because I assume that if teachers were successful in the past, they must have developed a feel for what is right, a naive, implicit but nevertheless correct theory about those leaming processes. Today we have substantial, explicit knowledge because quite a number of comprehensive observational studies have been published in this century, on mother-tongue acquisition, on bilingualism in the family, on the relearning of languages at a later age.

However, I do not wish to say that we should study natural language acquisition and then seek its implications for foreign language learning. That way is dubious, and false prophets have risen and preached to us language teachers without knowing what they were talking about. Instead, we should aim at an integrative view of language learning which looks at all pertinent acquisition situations and how they throw light on each other.

The classroom and what goes on there is definitely one of those acquisition situations and can of itself contribute to a better understanding of language acquisition in general. What has taken place there in the past with regard to discussion and leaching materials from grammarians and "language masters" committed to their tasks and to their pupils supplements our modem observational studies, and can still make a valuable contribution to how to achieve effective teaching.

From such excellent surveys as those by Kelly (1969) and Howatt (1984) , a clear picture emerges, especially if we bring together the solutions offered in this ongoing discussion with the evidence we get from studies of natural language acquisition. This includes mother tongue acquisition, although our obvious model is the young developing bilingual.

The way to achieve and maintain high quality in language education is through university teachers who have access to, and make use of, knowledge about a variety of acquisition situations; who not only know their own classrooms, but have looked across traditional boundaries of disciplines and can integrate the research findings of language acquisition in the crib, the playpen, the playground, as well as in the conventional classroom, in bilingual immersion classes, or in the executive office where a one-to-one teaching situation is norrnal. lt is time we pulled down those barriers and tied these strands together.

It is my assertion that as this century draws to its close, a hundred years after the Great Modern Language Reform in Europe, we are now entering a new era where for the first time substantial research findings are available on these various acquisition situations.

2. Three principles of learning and teaching
2.1 Grammar can be made an aid to performance
2.2 The learner needs opportunities for both medium-oriented and message-oriented communication
2.3 The mother-tongue as a partner rather than an enemy

3. Teachers must be fluent speakers

4. Conclusion: Teachers as guardians of civilization in a time of degenerating values