‘How is Carlos?’ I once asked a friend in Spanish, referring to a mutual acquaintance. But, confusing the two verbs ‘to be’, estar and ser, what I actually said was ‘What’s Carlos like?’ – Carlos ¿cómo es ? instead of Carlos ¿cómo está? Mischievously, my friend replied, Bueno, es calvo, bajito.. (‘Well, he’s bald and short…’). Puzzled at first, I then realised my mistake, and was able to repair it. But the good-humored feedback made a lasting impression. By responding to the literal – but unintended – meaning of my question, my friend had effectively problematised a distinction that I hadn’t fully internalised. The effect (I’m guessing) was more memorable than had he simply ignored the error and answered my intended message (Carlos está bien) or had he explicitly corrected me: ¿Quieres decir “Cómo está”? (‘Do you mean: How is he?’)
Problematizing a language item means alerting learners to the fact that a distinction that they had otherwise regarded as trivial or insignificant actually matters. One way of doing this is deliberately to induce an error and then show its effect. This is sometimes called a ‘down the garden path’ intervention, in that it lulls learners into a false sense of security and then intentionally trips them up.
R. Ellis (2008, pp. 883-84) describes it thus: “Most production practice is directed at enabling learners to produce the correct target language forms (i.e. by avoiding errors)”. He contrasts this with an experiment by Tomasello and Heron (1988) in which the researchers compared the effects of two kinds of instruction on errors caused by overgeneralisation (like my ser and estar error). “In one treatment, the problems were explained and illustrated to the students (i.e. explicit instruction). In the other, which Tomasello and Heron referred to as the ‘down the garden path’ treatment, the typical errors were induced and then immediately corrected. The results of this study show that leading students down the garden path was more effective”.
Ellis continues: “Two explanations for the results were offered. First, Tomasello and Heron suggested that the ‘garden path’ technique encourages learners to carry out a ‘cognitive comparison’ between their own deviant utterances and the correct target-language utterances. Second, they suggested this technique may increase motivation to learn by arousing curiosity regarding rules and their exceptions.”
As Nick Ellis (2008, p. 240) puts it “”We rarely think about driving, until it breaks down; as the clutch grinds, or the child runs into the road, these are the times when we become aware of the need to escape automatized routines. ‘The more novelty we encounter, the more conscious involvement is needed for successful learning and problem-solving” (Baars, 1997).”
One way of engineering this ‘novelty’ is through forcing a misunderstanding. As Tony Lynch (1996, p.85) puts it:
Comprehension problems are vital opportunities for learning. If learners encountered no difficulties in understanding, they would not need to go beyond their current level. It is by having to cope with a problem — either in understanding someone else or expressing themselves — that they may notice the gap and may learn the missing item.
As an example, here is an activity adapted from one in Uncovering Grammar (Thornbury, 2001). Ask the class to draw the following:
a room with a glass on the floor
a man buying paper
a girl with a long hair
a room with a light in it
a bowl with tomato in it
a room with glass on the floor
[At this point some students will cry: “We’ve already done that one!” Ignore them, and continue]
a bowl with a tomato in it
a man buying a paper
a girl with long hair
When students compare their drawings, they’ll discover that what at first seemed quite simple is now vastly confusing! The feature of language that has been problematised is, of course, the indefinite article that flags countability (a paper vs paper). For learners who are fairly dismissive about such ‘details’, the activity acts as an entertaining wake-up call! As R. Ellis says, elsewhere (1997, p. 128):
Learning becomes possible when the learner admits responsibility for the problem and so is forced to play [sic] close attention to the input. It follows then that it is not comprehension per se that aids learning, but… lack of comprehension.
My interest in problematizing was pricked when a fellow teacher trainer once commented that he was very suspicious of observed lessons that ‘go like clockwork’: “If there are no problems, there is probably no learning”.
A complex systems view of learning (as proposed by Larsen-Freeman & Cameron 2008, for example) would seem to support this view. A system that is relatively stable is resistant to change. But when a system is teetering on the brink of chaos, when it’s at its ‘tipping point’, it doesn’t take a lot to trigger a ‘phase shift’ – that is, a qualitative restructuring of the system. Problematizing a feature of the language that is in ‘free variation’ (like my verbs in Spanish) might just provide the necessary catalyst. N. Ellis (2008, p. 240) sums up the dynamic nature of this complex system:
L2 acquisition involves learners in a conscious dialectic tension… between the conflicting forces of their current interlanguage productions and the evidence of feedback, either linguistic, pragmatic, or metalinguistic, that allows socially scaffolded development.
Problematizing is a way both of heightening that tension and (hopefully) of resolving it.
Ellis, N. 2008. ‘The dynamics of second language emergence: cycles of language use, language change, and language acquisition. The Modern Language Journal, 92: 232-249.
Ellis, R. 1997. SLA Research and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Ellis, R. 2008. The Study of Second Language Acquisition (2nd edition). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Lynch, T. 1996. Communication in the Language Classroom. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Thornbury, S. 2001. Uncovering Grammar. Oxford: Macmillan.
Tomasello, M., & Herron, C. 1988. Down the garden path: Inducing and correcting overgeneralization errors in the foreign language classroom. Applied Psycholinguistics 9: 237-46.
Illustrations by Quentin Blake for Success with English, by Geoffrey Broughton, Penguin Education, 1968.