A New ELT Archetype

I’ve started growing a garden. Moved into the mountains of Nicaragua and there is a nice plot of land beside the house for a garden. Getting back to my farmer roots – pun intended.

This has set me to thinking about the whole concept of “growth” and the line between the natural and unnatural as it relates to language learning and acquisition.

I find Chomsky has many faults when it comes to linguistics but I’ve always been an admirer of his insistence that we “grow” a language and his insistence that language is a naturally occurring phenomena in the presence of certain stimuli.

However, this analogy and paradigm did not triumph much in practice, outside of academic circles. Skinnerian behaviorialism does still reign in its own manner. Most teachers, most influencing English language teaching still parade unnatural solutions to language learning. Focus on skills, practice, repetition, remembering, storing, retrieving. And until we disavow this wrong metaphor, we won’t make much progress and students won’t be learning as well as they should or could. Let me explain.

Just as the cognitive sciences are being rocked to the core with startling evidence that we don’t store, process and retrieve information in our heads, in a particular part of our heads – language teaching needs to be rocked to the core and rid of the myth that we stuff our heads full of language and the more “stuff” in there – the better we’ll speak, write, read, listen ….. We need to rid ourselves of the brain as a computer analogy and really focus on what works and what is actually happening when we learn a language.

The brain “grows” language. The evidence is thousands of years old. Humans have learned language through exposure, through the right natural elements since the dawn of signs/words. Nobody needed to memorize lists, listen and repeat, use study guides, attend a class with a teacher at the front. Let’s throw out the myth that only in the last few centuries humans spoke multiple languages. That’s simply not true. Humans have always encountered other language groups and learned other languages. Let’s throw the myth of monolingualism into the rubbish bin of history.

Further, evidence is abundant that implicit learning is what works and what teachers should be setting up for our students to learn language effectively. Exposure under the right conditions – primarily communication and use of language for meaningful purposes. Not textbooks, wordlists, exercises in conjugation etc ….. No. Exposure to language just like plants receive through the sun, water and elements of nature.

So we must move away from the “unnatural” part of the archetype that dominates and organizes how we see the world of language. Let’s focus on that natural part. Trust our students to learn. Organize our classes with the right “elements”.

And to end. We might ask what did happen to the very noble attempt to promote the approach of CLT – Communicative Language Teaching? It is still out there but basically swallowed up by the unnatural world of textbooks, synthetic syllabi and the monster that is structure. Nature remember is crooked!

Now back to my garden this Sunday morning. Always lots to do to make things grow!

Also published on Medium.

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