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The Shibboleths of TEFL, or Sense and
Nonsense in Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
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So much for preliminaries. Now for the shibboleth hunt.

1. Acquisition and Learning

No word in our field is more laden with ideological baggage than acquisition. The definition of the word that has bewitched TEFL comes from Krashen and Dulay’s Language Two, in which acquisition is sharply differentiated from learning. ‘Acquisition’ is said to take place in the intuitive right hemisphere of the brain, while ‘learning’ is said to take place in the analytic, language-controlling left side of the brain. ‘Acquisition’ activates the universal grammar hard-wired into the LAD (Language Acquisition Device) of the brain, while learning is an entirely separate process, unrelated to language acquisition. In other words, we pick up language unconsciously, while we study (or learn) language consciously. Acquisition is natural, while learning is unnatural.

All this is myth. There is no universal grammar, no LAD, no language hard-wired into the brain, no unconscious learning, and no ‘acquisition’ in the sense claimed by Krashen and his followers.

Of course, we do pick up languages through use, through enjoying songs, through conversation, through reading books etc. However, the true explanation for this process is not Krashen’s acquisition theory, but the normal process of learning and mastering new things. We learn what we are interested in and what matters to us, whether languages or music or how to play games or science or whatever. This ‘picking up’ is no different in principle from learning. We explore this idea in more detail later (see especially the section on Inductive and Deductive reasoning)

Halliday recommends that we drop the loaded terms ‘acquisition’ and ‘learning’ and adopt the neutral term ‘language mastery’ instead. Our profession would do well to follow this excellent and timely advice.

A methodology based on the idea that language acquisition takes place through letting the intuitive right hemisphere of the brain do all the work is a mischievous illusion. ‘Acquisition’ in this sense is our first shibboleth.

2. Deep and Surface Structures

There are ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ versions of this theory. In the hard Chomskyan version, deep structures are hard-wired into the brain. They are manifestations of the universal grammar that is thought to be common to all mankind. They generate surface structures – a process that can be depicted through tree diagrams. Deep structures are still language structures – they are part of the whole system which makes language possible. The soft version, on the other hand, sees ‘deep structures’ as part of our general mental universe (ie including features other than language), rather like Freudian subconscious drives. For instance, the surface structure of Hamlet deals with power and jealousy, while the deep (and hidden) structure is concerned with the Oedipus complex (in one celebrated reading). The soft version sees so-called deep structure as psychological rather than linguistic. This is the version that electrified a million cocktail parties a generation ago. It is an interesting, useful and valid idea.

The thinking behind this paper leads us to the conclusion that whereas ‘soft’ deep structures are a valid concept, hard Chomskyan deep structures are chimeras. They are our second shibboleth.

3. Innate Grammar

Interested readers are referred to an earlier MET article of mine on this topic for a more detailed study. Briefly, grammar is not innate, but learned. There is no reliable evidence to support the innate grammar hypothesis, and such evidence as is available can be explained more convincingly by evolutionary and functional hypotheses. Innate grammar is our third shibboleth.

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