Language is quite a complex system – one which we try to organise according rules and norms. One of the common ways for us to think about such organisation is prescriptively, the way many of us were taught a second or a foreign language. If we look at what David Crystal says about prescriptivism, we will see that it “is the view that one variety of the language has an inherently higher value than others, and this ought to be imposed on the whole of the speech community. The view is related especially in relation to grammar and vocabulary, and frequently with reference to pronunciation.” And here we have the three pillars of what we learn when we study a language. If we don’t learn vocabulary, we won’t be able to get our message across as other speakers of the target language won’t know what we’re saying. However, if we only know the vocabulary of a language and lack any understanding of what glues the pieces together, a.k.a. grammar, we’re likely to be unable to convey more complex thoughts and communicate something that may require further, more complex thinking. Finally, there is pronunciation, which is not the same as accent. Pronunciation is needed should you want to speak to other user of the language you’re learning. But why teach a language prescriptively? In a nutshell, it is much easier to teach something that has a fixed structure, and to a certain extent, there seems to be some logic in saying that it is easier to learn something that has a rigid structure.
Perhaps we mistake learning a language for learning any repetitive process, which leads to the belief that a structural sequence will make things easier. Yet, memorising processes and formulas is actually more difficult than really thinking about them. But we don’t follow this pattern simply because we don’t want to uncover a more effective way – we constantly repeat the processes we’ve gone through in life simply because, well, it’s worked for us. How can we claim that something that has worked for (many of) us won’t work for students when we ourselves are living proof of the success of the current system? But let’s not forget that most people who managed to succeed did so because they were so interested in the subject that they’ve actually chosen it as a career. This is not true for most language students, who may not be motivated enough to go beyond the basic rules that prescriptive grammar teaches. Thus, they are unable to grasp the subtleties of everything they’ve learned and how it overlaps with new content instead of simply add to it; they have a hard time thinking about language more abstractly. I believe that motivation has a major role in learning per se. As Jeremy Harmer said, “one of the main tasks for teachers is to provoke interest and involvement in the subject even when students are not initially interested in it.” However, Harmer reminds us that motivation comes from within, and we can only hope that our actions and words will lead students to start prioritising the subject we’re trying to teach them.
How have we been teaching them? We think of the least expensive way to teach and learn something – following guidelines and rules. In language teaching, this takes us back to prescriptivism, which makes it easier for teachers to judge right from wrong and allows students to have something to hopelessly cling to when they try to make sense of something that they simply can’t for lack of the development of an ability to look at language from a more holistic perspective. Such need for rules is a double-edged sword as students, after a certain stage, will be unable to find them as neatly written as they have grown used to. At this stage, they can only stop grappling with the understanding of language if they’ve developed the ability to think about language more as an organism – one which does have its rules and regulations, but one where these rules and regulations should be a bit less prescriptive and a tad more descriptive – if even that. By thinking so hard about the language, students end up making it harder for them to acquire the fluency level they initially hope to achieve.
If we consider what Daniel Kahneman says about this, we realise the problem lies with the laziness of our brain. Kahneman tells us that there are two systems in our brains. Roughly speaking, System 1 is the intuitive response, the system that doesn’t really think about the events; it takes into account the experiences we’ve been through to respond to external stimulus. System 2 is where thought really takes place. This is the system that rationally validates our actions. We fool ourselves by thinking that we’re much more likely to use our System 2. We aren’t, and this passage should show you why he states this:
The defining features of System 2 … is that its operations are effortful, and one of its main characteristics is laziness, a reluctance to invest more effort than is strictly necessary. As a consequence, the thoughts and actions that System 2 believes it has chosen are often guided by the figure of at the center of the story, System 1. However, there are vital tasks that only system 2 can perform because they require effort and acts of self-control in which the intuitions and impulses of System 1 are overcome.
By focusing on prescriptive rules, we’re getting our students to focus their attention and effort on rules that should allow them to tell right from wrong regarding their speech. What happens when you are put in a stressful situation? Instead of thinking about the rules you have learned through grammar exercises, learners tend to lose the capacity to let their monitor system, as Krashen calls it, regulate what they’re saying. Stress is an indication of a threat, so their brains will instinctively respond to this by putting their System 1 in charge. We’ll then see two kinds of students: those who don’t care about what others might think of them and will speak freely, without worrying much about proper language, and those who will simply be unable to carry out a basic conversation because they are unsure if they should use the simple present or the present continuous, or if they should use the word good or fine. I’m pretty sure most EFL teachers have had the chance to work with both kinds of learners, and my personal experience is that adults lean towards the latter.
This is where a conversation-driven lesson might help, yet again. If we encourage our students to engage in an effortful activity in class that is not simply related to answering grammar questions on a sheet of paper, we might just end up fostering their ability to allocate less energy to the daunting act of speaking through practice. As Kahneman says:
As you become more skilled in a task, its demand for energy diminishes. Studies of the brain have shown that the pattern of activity associated with an action changes as skill increases, with fewer brain regions involved. […] A general “law of least effort” applies to cognitive as well as physical exertion. The law asserts that if there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action. In the economy of action, effort is a cost, and the acquisition of skill is driven by the balance of benefits and costs.
When we think about skills in language learning, we usually list four: reading, writing, listening and speaking. By practising speaking more frequently, you should be able to develop the three pillars of a language (grammar, vocabulary and pronunciation) for this skill in particular. This means you won’t need to make a lot of effort to both understand what happens in the process of having a conversation and trying to get your message across. You can now focus on the message, which will already require a lot from memory. As Kahneman says, “effort is required to maintain simultaneously in memory several ideas that require separate actions, or that need to be combined according to a rule.” I cannot help but think that there’s a lot more into play in an exchange of ideas between two people than grammar rules and vocabulary.
When we have a conversation with others, we need to focus on both the verbal and non-verbal cues if we are to fully understand the message. We need to be able to understand sarcasm and irony, for instance. We need to listen to what our interlocutor says and then respond. This involves a lot of effort. As teachers, we need to show our learners that they are capable of doing such things in their L1 already, and that this ability can and should be transferred to their L2 self. However, if we insist on getting them to focus on rules without actually getting them to put the rules into use, it’ll be harder for their System 2 to realise that not all that is involved in having a conversation should require so much attention and effort. By focussing on discrete items of the language, we end up teaching our learners a tendency to focus on rules instead of putting the rules into use in order to communicate. As a result, the former takes precedence over the latter and most learners freeze when they need to hold a conversation with a native speaker.
This is not the same as saying we should focus on fluency rather than accuracy. I strongly believe accuracy is paramount to the development of fluency. What I question is the way we’ve been trying to get our students to learn. It seems we’ve been repeating what has been done for the past 20 or 30 years because either because it’s easier to explain logically the steps we’re taking (first we learn this, and then we move to that, once that has been mastered, we’ll then step forward to that other topic on our list) or because this is how some highly motivated individuals have managed to learn. It may even be very logical, but who said that there’s no structure or rationale in conversation-driven lessons? And, as I said previously, there’s a huge gulf between a conversation-driven lesson and a simple conversation. If we consider the way our brains work, conversation-driven lessons might actually be a lot more logical than a structural curriculum.