Second Language Grammar
eBook - ePub

Second Language Grammar

Learning and Teaching

William E. Rutherford

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  1. 208 pages
  2. English
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eBook - ePub

Second Language Grammar

Learning and Teaching

William E. Rutherford

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About This Book

The thrust of the book is not so much upon the formation of grammatical constructs but rather upon the shape of the grammatical system and its relation to semantics, discourse and pragmatics.

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Part One
On language, learning, and consciousness

I do not believe in things; I believe only in their relationship.
Georges Braque
When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.
John Muir
The learning and the teaching of someone else’s mother tongue are endeavours that have been carried on, in some recognizable form, probably for as long as humans have been able to take note of and record such activity. We may catch glimpses of it through the literature of the ages from the De grammatica of St Augustine to the antics of Hyman Kaplan, from the obstinacy of Shakespeare’s Caliban to the ingenuousness of My Fair Lady. In more recent generations, and coincident with the spread of middle-class mass education, we have seen language-leaming/teaching activities coalesce into particular methods and approaches. And of course by only a few decades ago modem foreign-language teaching had finally emerged as a full-blown academic profession, with its own rapidly proliferating professional societies, tenured faculty, serious research, academic journals, and contending theories. The present book then is a product, at one and the same time, of modem language theory and of the centuries-long tradition of language pedagogy.
Although discussion about the teaching of languages has been going on for centuries, perhaps even millennia, only relatively recently on this vast time scale have we given any serious thought at all to the question of how languages are leamed. What has now made it reasonable for us even to ask this question has a lot to do with modem developments in a number of different fields of research – to some degree, communication theory, education, and sociology – but above all in linguistics and psychology, and their amalgamation: psycholinguistics. To the extent that the ‘how’ and ‘why’ questions of language learning lead us to probe the nature of the structure and functions of the human brain, psycholinguistics can be considered one of the cognitive sciences. Current linguistic theory in fact takes language itself to be one of the ‘windows’, so to speak, into the workings of the mind.
Speculation on the use of language as one of the clues about how the mind works may at first seem a bit removed from the business of teaching languages. After all, aren’t there already enough classroom factors to contend with that we can actually observe (e.g. differences in age, maturation, proficiency, motivation, intelligence, aptitude, native language, etc.) without having to worry as well about something as arcane as mental processes? The answer to this of course is that what happens inside one’s head, as concepts are formed and transmitted in what we know as language, is an absolutely crucial concern for any educational discipline that takes the nature of language itself as its point of departure. And language teaching is such a discipline. The sort of cognitive change that language teaching is intended to bring about – namely, the learning of a language – is one that is ultimately explainable only by recourse to the kinds of theoretical abstraction that are needed for research in general into how the mind actually works.
Learning and teaching, then, are inextricably bound together – on the face of it, certainly not a particularly starling observation. If nothing else, the learning/teaching symbiosis would seem to indicate that for anything having to do with language, the ‘teachability’ of that phenomenon would depend crucially upon its ‘learnability’. Yet we may have legitimate cause to wonder how much of what passes today for ‘formal’ language instruction is an actual realization of this learning/teaching relationship. How much of what is taught as second-language ‘grammar’, for example, represents a choice determined rather by what we think can be linguistically analysed as a piece of target-language structure than by what it is possible in the classroom to learn or assimilate of such structure? How often, for that matter, does what we know of the very organization of language itself lead us to question the often different language-organization assumptions that underlie the treatment of grammar in language pedagogy? The implication here of course is that in actual practice the language-learning/teaching relationship – at least with respect to second-language grammar – is a far from perfect one. For a glimpse at some of the aspects of this imperfection, we will turn our attention to theoretical findings in a discipline closely allied with psycholinguistics and one of our newest fields of research: second-language acquisition.

1 The learning of grammar

It is natural that in language-learning research we should not lose sight of the learner’s goal in the task at hand – namely, the mastery of the target language. It is an objective that has remained fairly constant throughout the many centuries of documented language teaching (see Kelly 1969), notwithstanding the varied utilization of that mastery (from, for example, rhetorical prowess in the Middle Ages to travel abroad in the present). In addition to the goal of language learning, however, other fundamental questions have also begun to interest language-learning researchers. One of these is the matter of description – namely, of the path that the learner traverses in attempting to reach that goal. Others are matters of explanation, e.g. the question of to what extent the biological endowment for language acquisition that shaped the development of our languages in childhood also plays a role in language acquisition during adulthood. Still another question of crucial concern would be the lack of full success characterizing the overwhelming number of second-language learning experiences. We will begin our discussion through attention to how language acquisition has often been viewed in the recent past.

1 A conventional view of language acquisition

The progress that the second-language learner makes can be considered from a number of different perspectives. The kind of progress that is perhaps most familiar to language-teaching professionals is the kind that can be measured by means of some sort of test, the most common example being one that tests, usually in discrete-point fashion, the learner’s ‘knowledge’ of certain target-language structures. Structural knowledge that can be measured in this way played an important role in the early days of second-language acquisition research – research whose findings purported to demonstrate that mastery of English morphemes like past tense -ed, plural -(e)s, progressive -ing, tense-carrier do, etc., occurred not only in a relatively fixed order but also in an order that held constant for the L2 learning of both adults and children.1 Mastery was assumed to have occurred when learners produced the morphemes in ‘obligatory’ formal contexts about 85 per cent of the time. The focus of interest upon language production at the morphemic level and the belief that ‘mastery’ of language form could be measured quantitatively and cited as percentages went hand in hand, as it were. And statistical procedures that had served the evaluation task in discrete-point testing of classroom learning sufficed just as well for tabulation of language items for research purposes. Implicit in this kind of research, then, is a view of language learning wherein learner progress is tantamount to an increasing accumulation of language constructs that have been ‘mastered’.
For the sake of convenience, we might call the view of language learning just sketched out one of ‘accumulated entities’. That is, a person begins his task of learning a second language from point zero and, through the steady accumulation of the mastered entities of the target language (e.g. sounds, morphemes, vocabulary, grammatical constructions, discourse units, etc.), eventually amasses them in quantities sufficient to constitute a particular level of proficiency. That this view is fairly widely held among language-teaching professionals is substantiated by the bulk of available commercially produced foreign-language textbooks. Characteristic of the overwhelming majority of these products is the discovery of a target language whose structure has been analysed into its putative constituent parts, the separate parts thus serving as units of pedagogical content, focus, practice, and eventual mastery. The ‘parts’, it is important to remember, are not necessarily only units of grammatical structure, but ‘functions’ and ‘notions’ as well.2
This characterization of language pedagogy is meant to apply of course to those aspects of it in which learner attention is drawn to features of the target language itself. That which is drawn attention to, however, and the manner in which the attention-drawing is accomplished are usually mute testimony to a belief among language-teaching professionals – whether stated or not – as to how language is organized and how the learning of that organization proceeds. Language learning then, so the conventional view would have it, entails the successive mastery of steadily accumulating structural entities, and language teaching brings the entities to the learner’s attention. (We must assume that all teaching attempts at the very least to expose the learner to structural features of the target language, whether or not conscious attention is drawn to them.) If this brief description of one aspect of language learning is valid, then the relationship here between (perceived) learning and teaching is a close one. We must in fact question, however, whether language learning thus described has this validity.

2 The problem with ‘accumulated entities’

The conception of increasing language proficiency as a development reflected m the steady accumulation of more and more complex language entities is a difficult one to maintain once one looks a little more closely at what language learners actually do in the course of their learning. We might begin this kind of scrutiny here by asking the following question: if language knowledge develops primarily in terms of accumulated structural entities, then what kinds of learner production would we expect to see along the way?
For one thing, we would expect that well-formed target-language structures would, one after another, emerge ‘full blown’, so to speak, on the leamer’s path towards eventual mastery of the language. To take one example, a relative clause like who smoke (as in There are many people who smoke) would appear as such at some point in the leamer’s development and be added to his ‘repertoire’ of already existing structures. And if the learner went on to master the language, we could in principle tabulate the expansion of his repertoire up to the point where all of the well-formed structures of the target language had been accounted for.
We would also expect that two structures fulfilling similar semantic roles would, for learning purposes, be in ‘competition’ with each other, as it were. But since in the early stages the learner doesn’t really need two forms for the same semantic role, the more ‘complex’ of these two structures would temporarily be ‘avoided’ and the less complex of the two would serve the semantic function of both. After more learning had occurred, the more complex (avoided) structure would finally emerge to take its rightful place in the leamer’s pantheon of already mastered entities. Two such structures might, for example, be relative clause (people who smoke) and noun complement (the need to smoke), both of which serve in a general sense as modifiers of their head nouns (namely, people and need). Since some learners produce, along with the need to smoke, also people to smoke (meaning, presumably, ‘people who smoke’), it would appear that for purposes of noun-phrase modification they are letting the ‘less complex’ noun complement construction temporarily ‘stand in’ for the ‘more complex’ relative clause. Two otherwise semantically equivalent structures have thus ‘vied’ for supremacy at one point in the learner’s developing grammar, and the easier of the two would appear for the moment to have ‘won out’, or so the reasoning would go.
If language knowledge develops structure by structure, learner production would meet still another expectation for us. We would look for emerging full-blown structures to car...

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