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The Shibboleths of TEFL, or Sense and
Nonsense in Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
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7. The Natural Order

Is there a ‘natural order of acquisition’? If so, how do we explain it? Krashenite theory holds that the so-called natural order of acquisition reflects the way the Language Acquisition Device functions. We learn a language in the order dictated by the workings of the LAD: first isolated nouns and verbs, then pronouns, then x, then y, and finally z (eg third person s in the present simple tense) – or whatever. The LAD is like an old LP gramophone record. You stick it on the machine, and it plays in the order dictated by the grooves. The natural order is held to apply to L2 learning as well as to L1 learning. Quite detailed empirical research is cited in support of this theory.

However, the evidence used in this research is open to criticism. Firstly, it analyses only grammar: it takes no account of vocabulary, or pronunciation. Secondly, it ignores meaning and functional explanations such as ‘use’, ‘importance’, ‘interest’ etc. Third, the evidence is limited to few languages – mainly English and Spanish. The evidence thus provides only a severely limited account of language development. Alternative explanations of the order of language development are given in such language development studies as Halliday’s classic Learning How to Mean. The so-called ‘natural’ order of first language development can be explained through measurable and scientific categories such as easy/difficult, interesting/boring, simple/complex, important/peripheral, and – in first language development studies – by whether the child’s brain is yet able to handle the concepts behind the language. Children first learn what is simple, important to them, interesting – and within their mental grasp. Adults learn what is important and relevant to their needs too, but they can also master quite complex forms at an early stage..

This way of explaining the order in which adults develop a command of languages accounts for the many stories of language mastery that do not conform to the so-called ‘natural order’. Think of air traffic controllers, of musicians, of waiters, of priests learning the Latin Mass – and of ladies of the night. All have their own special language needs, and all master the language they need, ignoring much of the rest.

The true explanation of the so-called ‘natural order’ is functional need, not the LAD. Any language teaching method or material that attempts to teach language in the order dictated by Chomskyan theory ignores reality and is based on illusion. The Chomskyan ‘natural order’ is our seventh shibboleth.

8. Right-hemisphere and left-hemisphere learning

Let us begin this section by reminding ourselves of the theory. Psychologists and neurologists tell us, more or less, that the right hemisphere of the brain is the seat of patterns, intuition, art, music, dreaming, love and the universe of feeling etc. The left hemisphere of the brain, on the other hand, is the seat of analysis, logic, language, economics and science, etc.

Some language-acquisition theorists have used this model to develop a method of teaching that attempts to exploit right-hemisphere intuition and eliminate left-hemisphere analysis in order to teach language. In another words - to shut down the logical and inhibiting ‘monitoring’ left hemisphere of the brain, in order to allow free rein to the intuitive, uninhibited and creative right hemisphere. Krashen’s so-called Natural Approach is one example of such methods. Lie back on the carpet, listen to baroque music, eat chocolate cake – you’ll learn English (or French or even Chinese) double quick. Is this true?

Alas, no. This is simply not the way the brain works.

Relevant research has been carried out on the brains of musicians - research which is highly relevant to our concerns as language teachers. If you sit and listen to – say – Tristan and Isolde, in a darkened room, accompanied by an extremely beautiful girl, sitting on satin cushions, with a glass of Imperial Tokai in your hand, you will luxuriate in the tumultuous and erotic sounds with the right hemisphere of your brain. However, if you are one of the musicians actually playing or singing the music – and especially if you are the conductor who directs the whole performance, then the left hemisphere is very active indeed. Performing musicians use the left and right hemispheres together, each hemisphere helping the other. And the better you perform, the more you use the left hemisphere.

Most mental activity – including successful learning - involves the left and right hemispheres of the brain working together. So scientific research tells us, and such is our own experience. We start to learn a new language properly when our emotions are engaged and we want to communicate with real people, make friends, read the signs on shops, etc. That is the essential precondition (right hemisphere). But we make sense of the language data and remember it so that we can actually use it by analyzing it and seeing the regular patterns (left hemisphere). If this is so, it follows that language teaching methods should also combine left and right hemisphere approaches into an integrated whole. We can’t learn languages – any more than we can learn to perform Tristan – by sitting in darkened rooms and letting it all wash over us, even with the help of a very beautiful girl. Pity…...

Right-hemisphere learning theory is a last flicker from the dying embers of 1960s Californian hippy culture. It is time to move on.

Our eighth shibboleth is the idea that you can learn a language using exclusively the right (or the left) hemisphere of the brain. We must use both together.

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