Monday, January 18, 2010

Learning and Theory (part 2)

Alright, so here is part 2 of my little examination of learning and the role of theory plays on learning and teaching. This was fueled by Steve Kaufmann's semi-recent video blog (see part 1 of this series for link). This part has to do with Research, Politics and the role of linguistics in language learning.

First off the bat, we have a comment that research can project just about anything depending on the parameters of the study. Well, I am not really sure how to approach this other than to look at statistics as a parallel. An old professor of mine used to say that:
there are three types of liars: Liars, Damned Liars and Statisticians.

Of course this was a bit tongue-in-cheek as he was a math professor. The way you determine if a study has any bearing on what you do, or if it indeed is a credible study, is to look at the instrumentation, the methodology, the participants, the sociocultural settings and so on. No study is absolute because they can't test for everything. This is how discovery works: you isolate different features of something and you test to see what element interacts with what other elements and what they accomplish in the end. No study I've read is absolute, they all say "further research is needed". As much as I hate seeing this (as a future practitioner), I would be weary of any study that proclaimed the results to be absolute truth.

The second comment made was that language and politics are intertwined and politics are covered up under the moniker of research. Well d'uh! This isn't just part of language learning. It's part of education in general! This is nothing new, however that does not mean that all research is bogus, or that all research serves political purposes. Again, the onus is on the reader/practitioner/responsible citizen to look at the background, question, and prove or counter-prove. No surprises.

Finally, there have been many comments that people have been learning languages for centuries (well millennia actually) without knowledge of linguistics. I don't know where he is going with this. Does he mean that learners of a language have no knowledge of linguistics? Or that teachers of a language have no knowledge of linguistics?

If he means students had no knowledge of linguistics and they fared well, then I have to say "well d'uh!" As a learner you don't need knowledge of linguistics to learn a language It is not necessary. As a teacher of language I should hope you have some background in Applied Linguistics because then you are making informed decisions about how to teach language as opposed to taking stabs in the dark. According to wikipedia, Applied Linguistics is "an interdisciplinary field of study that identifies, investigates, and offers solutions to language-related real-life problems." and one of these problems/issues is how people best learn a language (first or second)

The research of applied linguists is not divorced from what happens in the classroom (at least it's not supposed to). Every language teacher is a researcher at heart. Learning it in a classroom is research based to some extent - whether some old schoolteacher way-back-when observed some behavior that he wanted reinforced and experimented with ways to reinforce it  (and then passed on that style of teaching to his disciples) or whether some linguistics researcher targeted some language structure in a clinical setting.

There have been some issues with linguistic dictionaries and professional jargon that the lay person does not comprehend (like monitor hypothesis, structured input and so on). Well, each profession has their jargon - it's inevitable. It's language used to explain theories and phenomena that are part of that profession. At the same time this jargon is not meant to be known or comprehended by the layperson who wants to learn a foreign language. This is language and terminology is geared toward professionals who are in the field of teaching language to others. Sure you could have a description of some concept that is a mile long, however jargon serves as short hand for conversations among communities of practice that know it, to save time and to communicate more effectively.

That's my 2 cents for now...
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