John de Mado in his NZALT presentations talked about the three languages which are always present in language learning. L1, L2 and interlanguage. When learners start out with zero knowledge L1 and L2 are completely separate. As learning ensues, they merge, giving rise to an area of overlap between the two which is interlanguage (illustrated by a venn diagram). Despite the best efforts of teachers to keep learners on the straight and narrow, to avoid producing error-filled language, in case they should become permanently contaminated, it would appear that making errors is an essential part of steering the interlanguage towards L2. The risk of fossilising errors only occurs after years of failing to notice and assimilate correct form. Initially students production will inevitably be influenced by both structural and phonological interference from L1 (position of object pronouns and adjectives for example or failing to make the u/ou distinction). As they're exposed repeatedly to correct form, they will, in the natural course of events, (and if correctness has some pay-off, such as being taken more seriously by native speakers) self-correct. Actual language acquisition takes place independently of the instruction and at the pace of the learner (Ellis' inbuilt syllabus). No amount of brow-beating and red pen will make students consistently produce correct language unless they're ready and willing. John de Mado even suggested that the way languages have traditionally been taught, with a goal of Language Mastery and native-speaker competence, has had an inhibiting effect on learners. When we hear of adults' negative language learning experiences and of their conviction that they're 'hopeless at languages', I can only agree with him. It's true that some people are quicker at understanding how language works and assimilating rules but these aren't necessarily the ones I would call the most effective linguists. They're likely to be more inhibited about making errors, which makes them less communicative. A few years ago I wrote an article for Polyglot which I subsequently posted on l'Ecole Hors les Murs (where I thought it would be more accessible) called 'What does it mean to be 'good' at languages?'
But back to our 'moutons' of content.... What content? When I had this conversation with David, calling into question the justification for overburdening programmes with content that's not particularly relevant or interesting for the learners, he pointed out that the arbitrariness of content is less of an issue in some spheres of learning. He argued that for medical training, for example, where a certain body of knowledge and procedures is essential, there's more of a blue-print. As an assiduous follower of recipes and a fairly linear thinker, he self-selected himself into medicine. Of course he has to solve problems but generally within familiar parameters and by following protocols. He might just as easily have chosen engineering, dentistry, law or veterinary but it was always going to be something with a large component of specific common factual knowledge. Learning to drive is another area where there's little or no margin for error. It's a matter of life and death, where there's only one right answer. I'm aware that among my learners there will be quite a few Davids who are more comfortable learning in a linear progression that's mapped out for them. As long as they make the choice 'en toute connaissance de cause' rather than by default then I should respect and accommodate that. This isn't incompatible with self-directed learning. Always in the back of my mind though, are Guy Claxton's Magnificent 8 qualities. The linear, text-book approach may offer less scope for developing all of these powerful dispositions of the autonomous learner.
What are they again?
- courage / resilience / perseverance
- exploration / investigation
- imagination > creativity
- reason / discipline / rigour / method / analysis
- sociability / empathy / sharing
- reflection / mindfulness
- curiosity (not much if everything's mapped out)
- courage / resilience / perseverance (lots needed to stave off boredom! seriously though, these qualities come into play regardless of methodology)
- exploration / investigation (probably very little)
- experimentation (not much room for this either unless the activities are open-ended)
- imagination > creativity (not really a lot of scope for these in a prescribed course of study)
- reason / discipline / analysis etc (there's always plenty of this whatever the methodology)
- sociability / empathy / sharing (perhaps, as long as there's group and peer interaction involved)
- reflection / mindfulness (perhaps, but prescribed courses don't leave room for much bigger picture reflection on the learning.
What would you be doing now if you were me?