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The Shibboleths of TEFL, or Sense and
Nonsense in Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
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4. Humanistic Approaches

These include The Silent Way, Suggestopaedia, Counselling Learning, the so-called Natural Approach, and related fringe methods. Again there are hard and soft versions of the theory behind these approaches. The hard version of the theory holds that such methods work by encouraging right-hemisphere acquisition to take place, while suppressing left-hemisphere ‘monitor’ learning. This version rests on a Chomskyan view of the structure of the brain and the basis of language: deep structures, hard-wired innate grammar, the LAD and the Monitor Model, etc. The soft view simply holds that people learn more effectively if they are comfortable, warm, well fed, and generally happy and appreciated: there is no elaborate supporting theory behind this view. If the ideas behind this paper are correct, it follows that the hard version is false, while the validity of the soft version can be proved or disproved by straightforward empirical research. Is the soft version true? Up to a point… But there are other views. Consider the words of my old headmaster. “Why did the Roman Empire fall”, he used to ask us, “too many baths… people had too many baths. They got soft”. And we all understood that what applied to the rulers of the Roman Empire applied equally to boys trying to learn their Latin declensions. Life is earnest, life is real...discipline, commitment, hard work.… And consider also these words of Baroness Thatcher: “if you want people to work, keep them cold; and if you want them to work hard, keep them hungry too.” If there is any truth in what the headmaster and the baroness said (and who would dare to contradict them?), the soft version is true only up to a point.

To conclude: while there is partial truth in the soft version of humanistic language learning, there is no scientific evidence to support hard-core humanistic approaches - they rest on a false view of language and the mind, and they are therefore built on sand. Hard-core humanistic language teaching methods are our fourth shibboleth.

5. Inductive and Deductive Learning

The problems here stem from confusion about how the brain works and about what actually happens when people think and learn. Let us recap basics. Deductive reasoning means starting from a rule, and deducing a conclusion from it. For instance, if the third person singular of the present simple has an s on the end, and a sentence requires a third person singular present simple verb, then that verb will have an s on the end. Or if a sentence requires a second conditional with the verb ‘to be’ in the third person, it must be ‘was’, and ‘were’ is wrong (wait a moment, please). We start from the rule, and work out the answer from the rule. Inductive learning, on the other hand, starts from the data, and then works out the rule from the data. We notice started, finished, lived, died – so we work out that the past tense adds ‘ed’ - inductive. (Hang on a minute..). TEFL is generally in favour of inductive rather than deductive reasoning as a means to help us master languages. Deductive reasoning = grammar-based learning, and that is old-fashioned and reactionary and bad. Inductive reasoning = learner-centered education, .discovery learning, tasks etc – and this is progressive and modern and good.

This cut-and-dried distinction between deductive and inductive learning distorts our understanding of the way the human brain actually operates. Karl Popper, in his The Logic of Scientific Discovery, proposes a bold and integrated inductive/deductive theory of discovery which has convincing explanatory power. Suppose we are trying to learn the second conditional. We start with a fairly vague idea of how it works: we have heard people using the word ‘if’ and the past tense – we are not completely clueless. We are a bit woolly about the details, but we start from a simple theory (deductive). We then find examples in use and compare them to the theory (inductive). We refine our theory (deductive). We then notice that people tend to say ‘if I were you’ as well as ‘if I was you’ (inductive). We devise a more elaborate theory to account for this, and take on board the notion of subjunctive mood expressed by past forms (deductive). We then listen to people using all the conditional forms in a piece of extended discourse (inductive). We fit the details into a broader framework that explains the whole conditional system (deductive). The same underlying process happens when we gradually assimilate the many irregular forms of the past as well as the regular ones, and explain some of them (ie we see mini-regularities as well as the major one) by reference to German and other roots, and we go on to understand the many functions of the past form other than expressing simple past time (deductive and inductive together). . .

Karl Popper developed his theory to explain how the brain makes scientific discoveries. But his theory can also explain a much wider set of phenomena. It explains how the brain actually works when it is learning something new or solving problems. The brain conducts a sort of dialectic between deductive and inductive reasoning in a lengthy process of refinement, testing against experience, further refinement, further testing etc etc. If this idea is correct, it ought to have a profound influence on the way we teach. We should employ both deductive and inductive reasoning together. We should not favour inductive reasoning at the expense of deductive reasoning.

The shibboleth here is the notion that only inductive reasoning is useful in language learning.

6. The Language Acquisition Device, or LAD

This myth has already been exposed, and further discussion is unnecessary here. The LAD is our sixth shibboleth.

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