I is for Imitation

25 03 2012

Listen!  Repeat! Understand! The sequence below comes from an advert for a self-study language course – an advert that I have used countless times on training sessions to (gently) mock the folk theory that language acquisition (both first and second) is primarily a process of imitation – and imitation in advance of understanding, no less. The text of the advert spells it out: ‘You probably can’t remember, but at that time [i.e. when you were a child]  you first reproduced sounds, then words, and then entire phrases without really understanding anything. Very quickly you were able to speak, understand and make yourself understood’.  And of course they add, ‘This is the best way to learn any language’.

It’s amazing how this notion has resisted the hatchet-job that Chomsky and his followers inflicted upon it so long ago. Mindless reproduction of the type described cannot of course account for the almost limitless creativity that even quite young children allegedly exhibit. Summing up the evidence, Lightbown and Spada (2006: 14) confidently declare that ‘imitation and practice alone cannot explain some of the forms created by children’, citing a figure of less than 10 per cent of children’s output as being directly imitative.

So, if, in Chomsky’s terms, language use is rule-based creativity, and if performance is contingent upon competence, then it follows that we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, so that they can generate their own meanings, rather than have them simply imitate a model. The learning sequence might better be summed up as Listen! Understand! Figure it out! Create!

It’s something of a shock, therefore, to come up against this sentence in Vygotsky’s Thought and Language ([1934], 1986: 188, emphasis added): ‘In learning to speak, as in learning school subjects, imitation is indispensable’. Or, as Lantolf and Thorne (2006: 166) gloss it, ‘Imitation is the process through which socioculturally constructed forms of mediation are internalised’. That is to say, the transition from skills (including linguistic ones) that are initially other-regulated to those that are self-regulated is engineered by – hold your breath – imitation.

In fairness, and as Swain et al (2011: 58) point out, Vygotsky’s notion of imitation was a far cry from mindless parroting: ‘Vygotsky differentiated imitation from automatic copying.  In Vygotsky’s view, imitation is a potentially transformative mechanism that is applied consciously and is goal-directed. Intentionality of the imitation, the reflection and examination of the results, and the subsequent revisions differentiates the action from simple mimicry’. This is reminiscent of Bakhtin’s (1981: 428) claim that, to make an utterance is to ‘appropriate the words of others and populate them with one’s own intentions’.

Imitation, then, is like a benign form of plagiarism, in which the child cobbles utterances together, in a kind of cut-and-paste fashion, using whatever linguistic affordances are available in order to achieve their immediate communicative purposes.  These linguistic affordances include, not only words, but multi-word chunks, such as lemme-see, I-wanna-do-it, etc, that, initially at least, are unanalysed into their component parts (Tomasello 2003). In this sense, they constitute what one scholar (Clark 1974: 1) has called performance without competence: ‘The important question is no longer whether imitation can help children to acquire syntax, but precisely how a child gradually extracts grammatical information from the repertoire of imitated sequences at his [or her] disposal’.

So, to tweak our learning sequence yet again, maybe what’s happening is more like Listen! Imitate! Understand! Figure it out! – not a million miles from the Listen! Repeat! Understand! formula that I habitually mock.

The question then is (as ever): how does this apply to the learning of a second language? How does one ‘populate the words of others with one’s own intentions’?  Eva Hoffman (1998: 220), a Polish teenager learning English in the United States, describes the process of appropriation:  ‘Since I lack a voice of my own, the voices of others invade me… By assuming them, I gradually make them mine. I am being remade, fragment by fragment, like a patchwork quilt’.  In a similar, patchwork fashion, a student of academic writing will selectively imitate (or copy) features, both micro- and macro-, of a model text as a first step in discovering her own academic ‘voice’.

If imitation is fundamental to first language acquisition, should we be integrating more imitation-type activities into our second language classrooms? And how can we ensure that, in order to be ‘transformative’, imitation meets the criteria that Swain et al. establish (2011: 59), i.e. that it is ‘deliberate, reflective, and accompanied by some kind of instruction’?


Bakhtin, M.M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays, Austin: University of Texas Press.

Clark, R. (1974) ‘Performing without competence’, Journal of Child Language, 1, 1.

Hoffman, E. (1998) Lost in Translation: A Life in a  New Language, London: Vintage.

Lantolf, J.P., and Thorne, S. (2006) Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lightbown, P.M. and Spada, N. (2006) How Languages are Learned (3rd edn.), Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Swain, M., Kinnear, P., and Steinman, L. (2011) Sociocultural Theory in Second Language Education: An Introduction through Narratives, Bristol: Multilingual Matters.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition, London: Continuum.

Vygotsky, L. ([1934] 1986), Thought and Language, edited by Kozulin, A., Cambridge, Mass: The MIT Press.



43 responses

25 03 2012
Cristina Ciuleanu

Hi Scott,
Very interesting post, as usual! This one interests me in particular, because I have been facing this problem lately and I have also thought a lot about the limits or functions of imitation.

There is something my students tend to do and I tell them not to:) repeat after me.

I am sure imitation is part of the learning process, especially when learning a new language, but it should be more of a intrinsic form of processing what the teacher says and not a means/method of teaching.

I guess by setting this difference we can actually start understanding better how imitation functions. It’s true that for my beginner students (adults too) is hard to immediately produce a sentence like ” I am walking now”, but after showing them a picture of me walking in the street, then repeat that to the students a few times, even showing them(through gestures), they might be able to “imitate” the same structure into saying “I am writing now”, “I am listening to you”. Of course through correction of the form and the help of visual materials they will “understand” why they are to use this grammar structure.

If I am allowed, I would say the process would/should go something like “Listen!Listen!Figure it out ( in terms of meaning)!Imitate (in terms of structure)!Listen!Understand!Produce!(after automaticity has been already achieved)”

Have a great day!

25 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Cristina, for your comment. What you describe is a defining practice of the direct method, i.e. contextualizing, modelling and repetition. I’m wondering if the sociocultural theorists are going a little beyond that, and arguing for a situated approach, in which the learner is motivated to appropriate (potentially generative) bits of language, by imitation in the first instance, through a need to be a member of the target discourse community. Or is this just dressing up direct method teaching in some kind of fancy jargon??

25 03 2012
Wink Cheeseburgers

I can’t understand how knockers of imitation teach absolute beginners (they still live), or pronunciation or tones in those languages where these exist. Have a go at teaching yourself Vietnamese: I’m confident that you will soon be searching desperately for teachers who insist on hours and hours of drilling before embarking on anything communicative.

25 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment. But try this thought experiment. Someone teaches you a card trick. They don’t demonstrate it – they simply explain it. Fortunately, it’s simple enough for you to retain the steps in your working memory, and you can recall these stepos in order to perform the trick. It sort of works. You do it a few more times with a ‘live audience’ and their reaction prompts you to adjust your performance in order to improve the trick. Soon you can do it fairly automatically.

Notice that there’s no actual imitation here. There’s no imitation because there’s nothing to imitate – no modelling, no demonstrating.

Couldn’t this (deductive) process (I.e. proceduralizing explict knowledge, and adapting your performance to the feedback you get) also work with language learning? No actual imitating of models?

There is, of course, a methodology that rejects all modelling and imitation, and that is the Silent Way. Does/Did it work?

29 03 2012

As someone who began teaching himself VIetnamese, I’d say Scott’s process below works quite well. I started speaking tones based on the diacritics. I then got feedback when people understood me or not. I found I picked up the tones rather quickly. The same has been true for Mandarin.

I also met a Romanian once who spoke pretty decent English and learned it all from a computer program.

In both instances, there is lots of repetition, but imitation of actual native speakers came later..

25 03 2012
Cristina Ciuleanu

I have to admit I have no knowledge of Vietnamese and about its grammatical structure, but I was basically referring to teaching English as a foreign language (this being my personal experience).

I do practice a lot of drilling when teaching, but by drilling I don’t want my students to repeat something after me (just in terms of form and not relating the sounds to the actual meaning of the utterance). I know it’s really challenging to have them understand the meaning, but I guess that the primary goal should be at least trying and trying to send a message each time the teacher communicates something to the students, avoid the practice of a structure just as an abstract line that needs to be repeated over and over again.

Language is communicating and we can’t eliminate this function when teaching even if we stand in front of beginners.

What’s the point in saying something if the interlocutor gets no meaning out of it- just a series of sounds or words grouped in a sentence?

Hoping I clarified a bit my position towards imitation and drilling, thank you for considering my response.

25 03 2012

Subconscious mimicry obviously plays a role in L1 pronunciation and it seems at times when surrounded by a different dialect or accent for an extended period of time (eg as an 8-year-old who moved from the UK to Australia gradually acquired an Antipodean drawl). However, I think there may be some psychological / personality factors involved with L2 learners, where they deliberately refrain from imitating pronunciation, intonation and/or stress for fear of sending out the wrong signals to L1 speakers (or classmates!) Certain imitation techniques do seem to be effective for some L2 learners, such as shadowing and maybe even the often decried reading aloud. Maybe in these circumstances it is beneficial if the meaning of what is being repeated or read is understood.

25 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment. I’m now starting to wonder about the difference between ‘mimickry’ and ‘accommodaiton’, where the latter is “The ability to adjust your speech and other aspects of spoken communication so that they become more (or less) like that of your interlocutors” (Walker, R. 2010, Teaching the Pronunciation of English As a Lingua Franca, OUP). This seems to me to be a process which is differently motivated than simply imitating or mimicking.

25 03 2012
Bruno Andrade

I humbly believe we should strike a line between two different kinds of mimicry in language learning, Scott. (Please correct me should I be completely wrong). What I call audiolingually imitation is that one in which students unawarely make by imitating what others say: merely repeating. On the other hand there’s one kind in which I believe it helps students strive when trying to communicate: the consciously made imitation. Living proof speaking here. When I was younger and was doing my best to learn English by myself, I used to literally imitate bits of language I’d heard. I always looked for a context in which I could simply imitate what I’d listened to. And one could see me looking for a way to insert that language in my speech. That was a very important way I found in order to practice and eventually learn chunks.

I could not agree more with the fact that imitation, thus plays a big role in learning a language. We teachers have to serve as role models for our students and provide them with opportunities to consciouly imitate whatever insight they may need in the future in order to communicate.

Thanks for the reflection.

25 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks for the comment, Bruno. I think you’re right, i.e. that there is a difference between ‘mindless repetition’ and deliberate attempts to replicate self-selected ‘bits of language’, as you put it. Your own experience echoes that of Luiz, below. (Maybe it’s a particularly Brazilian aptitude!)

25 03 2012
Charles Wotton

I can see potential for “deliberate, reflective” imitation not only in language learning, but in learning other creative skills as well. I’m learning how to draw and one thing I do is to very carefully observe the technique of an artist I admire and then try to imitate that technique. Recently, for example, I was drawing a sort of hand-drawn treasure map, and I liked the way someone else had drawn a similar map, especially the mountains. So I tried to draw mountains like his and was at first unsuccessful, but then I went back to his map and looked at it really closely to figure out exactly what I liked about it. I realised that he used the shadows on one side of his mountains in a way that was ‘unrealistic’, but which connected bits of mountain together across the map in a really pleasing way. I closely imitated how he did that and first drew mountains that were almost copies of his, but then, once I was satisfied I could use the technique I drew ones that fit into the map I wanted to draw and made the mountains my own.

So I wasn’t imitating wholesale, not just copying every detail of one of his maps (copying sentences at first, perhaps, not a whole text, then using the phrases I liked while switching out words–I don’t want to take the analogy too far, but you get the idea). Though trying to exactly copy a whole map might have been useful too. And while I didn’t have any explicit instruction in this case, there was an element of feedback–I could easily compare what I had drawn to what he had drawn and notice where I was failing to match my model.

It was also far from mindless imitation in at least two significant ways. First of all, I was imitating because I wanted to incorporate the thing imitated into a creative act of communication of my own. Also, this sort of imitation involved a lot of analysis of how exactly he achieved his effect, the imitating led me to a far better understanding of the technique.

25 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Charles — I love the example (and the analogy) with learning to draw, and you make the point that there is a difference between ‘wholesale imitating’ and ‘selective borrowing’ — which echoes points made earlier by Bruno, among others.There are so many terms here that overlap but yet are subtly distinctive, e.g. imitating, mimicking, copying, borrowing, appropriating, accommodating…

25 03 2012

‘In Vygotsky’s view, imitation is a potentially transformative mechanism that is applied consciously and is goal-directed. Intentionality of the imitation, the reflection and examination of the results, and the subsequent revisions differentiates the action from simple mimicry’

I never got much out of language tapes (the ultimate in mindless repetition!) because they were divorced from actual communication. Would it be fair to say that Vygotsky-style imitation is imitation within the communication process? Roughly: Sender delivers message through a medium to receiver who returns feedback. Loop until communicative need is met. A skilled sender can form a message that’s likely to get positive feedback immediately. A learning sender might begin with borrowed language (imitation of language not fully understood) and will likely have to loop a lot before feedback indicates success. The looping process is where the learning happens. Understanding: these words seem to get this response in this situation. Figuring it out: generalizing to patterns of use in various situations.

‘If imitation is fundamental to first language acquisition, should we be integrating more imitation-type activities into our second language classrooms? And how can we ensure that, in order to be ‘transformative’, imitation meets the criteria that Swain et al. establish (2011: 59), i.e. that it is ‘deliberate, reflective, and accompanied by some kind of instruction’?’

If Vygotsky imitation occurs during communication, then a conversation-based lesson can be an imitative activity. As an instructor, I would want to ensure that learners know some strategies and techniques for giving and getting feedback in English. I could look for (or give) stimulus that would provide a model that learners may need to “borrow” as they try to express themselves. I can give feedback from within the looping process (just by responding in communication). I can give condensed, explicit feedback outside of the loop via strategic pauses to examine language. But learners should return to production (writing, as a group, in pairs, etc.) so they can make use of that feedback. Asking students to look for (or create) related stimulus outside the classroom and bring it in can facilitate the generalizing process. Maybe I can encourage the reflective process by asking students to summarize the lesson and self-evaluate?

Writing out the above has really helped me to more clearly see a role for me as a teacher in a conversation-based lesson. Thank you!

25 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Kathy, for this truly insightful comment — I enjoyed being privy to your thinking processes! This idea of a kind of feedback loop does seem to reflect what happens in first language acquisition, where the child’s imitations are typically framed by some kind of communicative interaction. Children imitate, but they also make the necessary in-flight adaptations that their communicative purposes require. For example, they change the pronouns appropriately, according to the context, although this is not always the case initially, e.g.

Mom: Shall I pick you up?
Child: Yes. I pick you up. [instead of ‘you pick me up’]

Apparently these ‘pronoun reversal errors’ occur more often with unanalysed chunks,or with particularly complex language that may be quite new to the child.

Apropos, Lightbown and Spada (2006) quote a study in which 30 to 40 percent of the child’s utterances were imitations of what someone else had just said, but that these imitations were of words and sentence structures “that were just beginning to appear in his spontaneous speech. Once these new elements became solidly grounded in his language system, he stopped imitating them and went on to imitate others”. (p.11) They conclude: “Unlike a parrot who imitates the familiar and continues to repeat the same things again and again, children appear to imitate selectively. The choice of what to imitate seems to be based on something new that they have just begun to understand and use” (ibid.).

The point is, that these imitations all occur within the context of real-time communication.

26 03 2012

Do you think that might hold for SLA too? Maybe watching for what a learner imitates can be a clue as to what’s emerging for them (what to support with explicit assistance). Hmmmm … more to absorb. Thanks again!

25 03 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

This is a question I hold near and dear to my heart because, unless my meta cognition is seriously flawed and my perception utterly, helplessly wrong, I can unequivocally say that a lot of the English I know today I learned (“I’ve learned” would probably be best here) through self-initiated imitation.

When I was in my early teens, I went from beginner to B1ish level without any sort of classroom instruction. I taught myself primarily through pop music, a dictionary and a more capable peer (my mom), who would – begrudgingly, at times – answer one or two questions I might have. I remember repeating the catchier, more memorable lines in my head and out loud over and over and over, long after the song had finished. Then I would proceed to create novel utterances on the basis of those lines and ask her if what I’d said made any sense. Turns out it did most of the time.

Interestingly (though perhaps not surprisingly), I picked up a lot of “complex, difficult” constructions relatively early on in the process – stuff which, in class, I wouldn’t have been exposed to before CAE-preparation level. In actual fact, the first “grammar point” I ever learned was probably “as…as”, by reading an old, audiolingual textbook that belonged to my aunt. “As + adjective + as”, at the time, struck me as so interesting, so intrinsically logical and so potentially useful that I spent the rest of the day making “as…as” sentences in my head, in awe of my brand new discovery and the generative potential that it had. Imitation, again.

But I digress.

Cut to 1986, when I joined a language school. I was classified into intermediate something and, partly because of that, there was very little repetition (teacher-led imitation) in class, but, on my own, I was still actively noticing language (irrespective of what the “structure of the day” happened to be) and imitating it, over and over, both silently and out loud, on the bus, on my way home. I used to have classes on Mondays and Wednesdays, but would spend the other days of the week – to my friends’ horror – locked up in the school’s lab, gladly enduring hours and hours of LG Alexander’s highly advanced and deliciously far-fetched situational drills (Fluency in English). Again, I picked up dozens, if not hundreds, of phrases there, which I eventually started to deploy in communication more and more confidently as time went by, sometimes without having to resort to any sort of overt language analysis. I remember being able to ace the old CPE’s dreaded language transformation exercise largely drawing on language that I’d picked up from Alexander’s drills. In actual fact, today, nearly 25 years later, I can still remember some of the lines: “If it weren’t for that stupid woman in front, you’d be able to overtake”/ “However qualified she may be, it’s a mistake to think she’ll be good for the job.”

I don’t want to generalize beyond my experience, of course, but if we assume that “listen and repeat after me” can somehow foster the kind of self-initiated imitation that has taught me the English I know today, then I think it would be a real, real shame to dismiss repetition out of hand.

25 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thank you, Luiz. The measure of a good blog post is the quality of the comments that it yields — and this is really one of the best! The conclusion you come to, based on your own experience, is both measured and highly suggestive, and is worth repeating: “it would be a real, real shame to dismiss repetition out of hand.”

26 03 2012
Luiz Otávio Barros

Scott, thank you for your kind words and, above all, for this A-Z blog, which has, to a large extent, rekindled my interest in ELT methodology.

25 03 2012
Jason West (@EnglishOutThere)

I like the direction this is going! If scenarios like those described above are desirable, where will (or could) they take place?

26 03 2012

Hi Scott

I was really pleased to see you take up the concept of imitation in your blog here, as it’s something that I have found very useful when looking at data from second language classroom teaching/learning activity (and it fits in well with Dogme ELT approaches to the language learning process, which is for another conversation!). It also goes some way to fill in the gaps left by a lot of SLA research, which spends a great deal of time trying to look at individual learning processes, yet still treats the context in which the learning is situated as an annoying set of variables. The context, and for teachers with a “dialogic orientation”, that includes the goal-directed talk that is the foundation for a lot of language learning and development, is key to understanding how learners make their own the language that is developed among the class.

But, the notion of imitation can refer to different paradigms, and it needs to be clearly delineated – such as mimicry versus creating something new, as has come up in the comments here. Like you, I have found the Vygotskian-inspired notion of imitation intriguing, but a powerful explanatory tool at the same time. Rather than go on too much here, I’m leaving a link to a series of blog posts where I’ve trundled around with the theoretical ideas. I’ll also be having some of this published this year and next, with the data to show it come to life in second language classrooms (sorry if this sounds like self-promotion, but there is little available for us to read in this area). The key ideas for language teaching are: the quality of modelling that is created in lessons, the idea of persistent imitation (as opposed to simple imitation, when nothing new emerges), and the super important role of “errors” (which is really persistent imitation in all its glory).

To end with on a kind of upbeat thought: while you said in your interview last week at IATEFL that “Dogme gave a label to something that people did anyway, but therefore in a sense, it validated it”, I think it’s also providing powerful impetus to explore dialogic teaching in all its glory for the second language classroom, and more power to it!


Phil Chappell


My summary of persistent imitation:
Baldwin’s persistent imitation introduces active construction into the hitherto reproductive notion of imitation. It foregrounds the imitator’s efforts to modify the original models through experimentation. This is fundamental to internalisation in the zone of proximal development.

27 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Phil, for that… both the comment an the link. The distinciton between simple and persistent imitation is key, and captures a lot of the discussion so far. And this Baldwin quote is worth cutting and pasting:

Imitation to the intelligent and earnest imitator is never slavish, never mere repetition; it is, on the contrary, a means for further ends, a method of absorbing what is present in others and of making it over in forms peculiar to one’s own temper and valuable to one’s own genius. (1906, p. 22).

Again, the challenge for language teachers seems to be (a) providing the kind of classroom ecology that encourages persistent imitation, and (b) providing the motivation and the means for learners to take advantage of this ecology. This perhaps harks back to another recent post, the one on automaticity, in which Gatbonton and Segalowitz put the case for activities that are

formulaic i.e. utterances must be short, memorizable, and multi-situational.

inherently repetitive

26 03 2012
Mark Kulek

Hi Scott.
Watching my children learn to be bilingual has been a big help for me as a teacher in my ESL classroom. 

They constantly observe me, mimic me and then try to produce on their own.

I feel feedback is essential for SLA. My two little girls wait for feedback from me then self-correct. However, with their grandparents, who speak no English, they get zero feedback which is hard to witness.  I feel bad for them. People certainly need feedback. 

My girls don’t have much schema for assessment, but context and content plays a big role for them. For example, when we ascend the stairs, they always say good morning (no matter the time of day). I think they assess the situation and the “good morning” is the proper context. They are using their chunk of English for that situation. 

How about including assessment (content and context) into the mix; content is the picture, context is the situation and mimic is the language:
Listen, assess, mimic, produce, feedback and then figure it out. 

Mark in Gifu

27 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Mark, for that observation. It reminded me of the abstract of the article by Ruth Clark (Performing without competence) that I referred to in my post. I haven’t been able to get hold of the areticle itself, but here is the abstract:

It is stated that speech in children should be viewed as a developing skill. One boy seemed to have strategies for simplifying the tasks of speech reception and production. He would incorporate the immediately prior utterance, or some portion of it, intact into his utterance as if to avoid structuring his entire utterance from scratch. Another strategy was to extend his repertoire of structures to express more complex ideas simply by combining 2 existing structures without reordering any of the elements to match adult syntax. If such strategies are widespread they may account for the recorded facts about the development of children’s question forms. Psychological variables should not be regarded merely as putting restrictions on the extent to which a child’s linguistic knowledge can be expressed. Rather, they affect the manner in which syntactic structures develop.

You are well placed to do some research of your own!

26 03 2012

Hi Scott,

I just wanted to post a quick comment, since this post reminded me of a successful strategy I’ve used in oral activities in class -I just hadn’t thought about the fact that students ‘copied and pasted’ (so to speak) language chunks as a way to start producing by imitation. The activity I’m thinking about is one where students are given small pieces of paper with the beginnings or dialogues, common phrases or some of the expressions being learned. Students use these cards to produce dialogues and then act them out (without a script). While there is no direct imitation or copying of a premade dialogue, they are taking language chunks and building their own ‘patchwork quilt’, as the Polish student in your post calls it.

Always enjoy reading your posts. Thank you!


27 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Laura … yes, this kind of ‘collage’ or ‘bricolage’ type activity suggests a whole range of activity types that involve creative borrowing. Interestingly, I was reading the latest TESOL Quarterly on the plane (as one does!) and, in an article on academic writing strategies, the authors referred to a strategy called ‘verbatim source use’, which is when ‘a string of three words or more [is] directly drawn from the sources into student essays’. Clearly, there’s a thin line between ‘verbatim source use’ and plagiarism, but…

And that reminds me of a favorite activity of mine, the ‘paper interview’, in which students in groups devise interview questions which they submit to you, the teacher, on slips of paper; you answer these by writing phrases or sentences on the slips, and then they write up the interview as a narrative or a report, ‘stitching’ the bits together, and making any necessary adjustments (e.g. to prononuns) as well as using linking devices, to create cohesive and coherent text. This is pure bricolage.

26 03 2012
Naomi Epstein (@naomishema)

It has been said on occasion that studying how deaf children learn a language gives one insight into the processes involved (sorry, no references off hand).

In my experience as a teacher of the deaf (English teacher) imitation is closely related to exposure. By using some degree of imitation we know that at least for those few times the student has really been exposed to a new structure, collocation or whatever else. When watching hearing children play computer games, for example, one child will begin randomly imitating phrases used in the game. At first he will just seem to be saying them over and over and then it seems he starts noticing when they appear in the game and figuring out what they mean. Meanwhile, his HEARING pal, functions just like my deaf students do.He plays the game often yet there is no incidental learning. His attention must be brought to these words and phrases. After he has repeated them several times he begins to recognize them in the game and then they become reinforced.

Imitation can be boring and problematic but I believe it has its place, particularly for struggling learners.

Thank you for another thought provoking post!
Naomi Epstein

27 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Naomi – that’s absolutely fascinating. Yes, it’s fairly well documented how kids pick up formulaic language from games, and the way you describe the way the child imitates without really understanding does suggest that ‘performance’ can and does precede ‘competence’ on many occasions, and that the Linguaphone ad (You listen, you repeat, you understand) may have more truth to it than we are led to believe!

27 03 2012

A very timely post for me and my IH CAM (Advanced Methodology) course participants who have been discussing the difference between active and passive noticing this week, Scott.

We decided active noticers find useful language in the texts they read and listen to and try it out in other contexts in order to communicate for themselves, thus (eventually) making the language their own. Passive noticers on the other hand just copy and paste without thinking or adapting or creating something new out of the old.

Surely the imitation being discussed here is the same, and the more actively we imitate (i.e. think about the meaning and contextual use of the utterance we’re imitating as well as copying its form) the more successful language learners we become?

The teachers roles are many in this process. Giving helpful and immediate feedback, as Kathy suggests above, is crucial. But training / encouraging our learners to take as active a role as possible in their imitation / noticing, as both Bruno and Luiz have done, is also crucial learner training. Activities such as When would you say this? Who could you say this to? can help immensely in this regard.

27 03 2012
Richard Ingate

Imitation and learning is a fascinating subject! I would suggest that when imitation does lead to, or is part of successful learning, it is itself part of a bigger chunk called ‘modelling’ in NLP terms.

Also I think an interesting parallel with learning a complex physical skill such as Taiji. Imitation is very much a first step. Once you have the basic choreography then you can find the internal connections that make it yours and, eventually, part of your natural movement.

27 03 2012

Hi Scott,

You say in your first post:

“It’s amazing how this notion has resisted the hatchet-job that Chomsky and his followers inflicted upon it so long ago. Mindless reproduction of the type described cannot of course account for the almost limitless creativity that even quite young children allegedly exhibit. Summing up the evidence, Lightbown and Spada (2006: 14) confidently declare that ‘imitation and practice alone cannot explain some of the forms created by children’, citing a figure of less than 10 per cent of children’s output as being directly imitative.

So, if, in Chomsky’s terms, language use is rule-based creativity, and if performance is contingent upon competence, then it follows that we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, so that they can generate their own meanings, rather than have them simply imitate a model. The learning sequence might better be summed up as Listen! Understand! Figure it out! Create! ”

I have this to say. Chomsky himself never tires of saying that he has little to contribute to the reseach being done on SLA. Chomsky’s construct of “competence” has almost nothing in common with the construct of “communicative competence” that we talk about in SLA. Indeed, as you know, Hymes coined the term “communicative competence” just to distance the SLA discussion from Chomsky’s very technical disinction between competence and performance.

Chomsky’s model of language distinguished between competence and performance because he wanted to concentrate on the daunting task of trying to describe underlying linguistic knowledge. This he felt had to be separated from the use of language, influenced as the latter is by limits in the availability of computational resources, stress, tiredness, alcohol, etc. Chomsky said that he was concerned with “the rules that specify the well-formed strings of minimal syntactically functioning units” and with an ideal speaker-listener, in a completely homogenous speech-community, who knows his language perfectly and is unaffected by such grammatically irrelevant conditions as memory limitations, distractions, shifts of attention and interest, and errors (random or characteristic) in applying his knowledge of the language in actual performance”. (Chomsky, N. 1965: “Aspects of the theory of syntax.” Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.Page 3)

Your claim, then, that “if, in Chomsky’s terms, language use is rule-based creativity, and if performance is contingent upon competence, then it follows that we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, so that they can generate their own meanings, rather than have them simply imitate a model” is based on a flawed understanding of Chomsky. Chomsky has never claimed in regard to SLA that “performance is contigent on competence” for the reasons outlined above. Your argument is thus a non-sequitur.

The arguments about whether we should teach (or have learners figure out) the rules of the language, and, equally, whether we should use various forms of drills or “imitation” have thus, I suggest, nothing very much to do with Chomsky.



28 03 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Geoff, for that clarification.

A couple of things: I wasn’t attributing to Chomsky directly the effect he had on shifting the focus from drills to rules in second language teaching methodology, and I’m very aware that he distanced himself from all issues of classroom methodology. Nevertheless, his notion of an underlying competence, in turn configured according to innate and universal principles, was a powerful influence in the discrediting of behaviourist-influenced approaches such as audiolingualism (and approaches of the type that are crudely portrayed in that Linguaphone advert I posted).

I’m also very aware that Chomsky’s notion of competence has nothing to do with communicative competence, and I wasn’t using the term in that sense. I was simply arguing that mentalist models of language acquisition assume that there can be no performance (or e-language, if you like) without there being a pre-existing competence (or i-language). Ruth Clark, in her paper ‘Performance without competence’ (of which I’ve only read the abstract, I hasten to add) seems to be arguing that, on the basis of children’s propensity to take on board unanalysed chunks, there is a case for claiming that e-language (sometimes, at least) precedes, and perhaps even determines, the development of i-language. This claim relates to FLA but of course there are plenty of theorists (and practitioners) who are happy to extrapolate from FLA to SLA.

Of course, the usage-based folk, like Tomasello, would merrily consign this competence-performance distinction to the trash can of linguistic theory.

So, back behind the couch with you! 😉

28 03 2012

Hi Scott,

Just for a moment, I’ll stay upright in my chair (though I’ve rarely had such an enticing invitation) and ask you this: What “mentalist models” of language acquisition assume that there can be no performance without there being a pre-existing competence? It’s either trivially “true” because you and your model make it so, or it remains to be argued.

By “mentalist models” I assume you mean models used by those who try to figure out the cognitive processes at work in SLA, as opposed, say, to those who take a more sociolinguistic approach. What happens in the mind of people who engage in learning English as a foreign language? You and I would probably agree that these people develop an “interlanguage” (a construct which I think has been sufficiently well-developed for most of us to know what is being referred to) and we’d probably agree that the way this interlanguage develops sems to have a certain more or less predictable trajectory (up to a point), which, interestingly, seems more or less impervious to instruction (some bits are acquired before others and that’s that).

But, sorry to insist, to say that some pre-existing competence (for language) precedes performance in SLA seems to me to rest on a faulty understanding of Chomsky. I’m not saying it’s a bad argument in itself, just that you won’t find any support from Chomsky for such a view. And Ruth Clark (who I haven’t read either)while she might shake us up, doesn’t have a jot to say about what Chomsky’s interested in, Chomsky simply doesn’t care about this kind of e-language evidence: it’s what those guys watching sub-atomic particles whizzing round their circuit call “noise”.

To quote a bit of my book:

Chomsky’s UG is essentially a description of core grammar: it is not really a theory of learning at all. According to Chomsky we do not “learn” our I-Language in the usual sense of the word: we are born with linguistic competence, and all we need is some positive evidence to trigger particular parameters so that the particular version of UG corresponding to our L1 becomes instantiated in the mind. Thus the process of acquisition is not interesting, the main task is to describe the components of the core grammar. In SLA on the other hand, we are interested in explaining the language learning process. We are also interested in a variety of phenomena such as variability, fossilisation, and individual differences, all of which are deliberately ruled out of a theory of UG, not because Chomsky might think their study cannot be scientific, but because they have nothing to do with the acquisition of L1 linguistic competence.

The limited domain of Chomsky’s theory means that there are many aspects of L1 acquisition that fall outside it; Chomsky has nothing to say about pragmatics and discourse, linguistically he concentrates heavily on syntax, and even there only on core grammar; the acquisition of language-specific tense and case morphology, for example, are not included. Wolfe-Quintero comments: “UG may account for the successful acquisition of core grammar, but there is much more to language learning than that.” (Wolfe-Quintero, 1996: 343)

In the case of SLA, the limitations of a UG approach are even greater. Even assuming that UG exists, that UG theories of L1 acquisition are true, and that L2 learners have at least some access to UG, most of the questions that concern SLA researchers remain unanswered, indeed they are not addressed.



31 03 2012
Catherine Kennedy

A brilliant post, and a fascinating array of comments!

Perhaps, and this is definitely NOT to detract from the detailed and totally relevant comments people have made, the real issue is the message implicit in the liguaphone ad and others like it. They imply that their system will excuse the student from taking responsibility for their own learning. And nothing in the world, no language method certainly, ever lets us off thinking for ourselves. I don’t care how expensive it is.

3 04 2012
Sulabha Sidhaye

A truly interesting discussion, highlighting the different processes that go on along with imitation, in language learning. As a teacher of English in multi-lingual India, I find it useful to differentiate between incidental and conscious learning, also between learning at different age-groups and according to the no. of languages known to the learner.

In India, school children learn 3 to 4 languages. The methods change as they move from mother-tongue to national language Hindi, then to English and finally either a classical language like Sanskrit or a foreign language like German or French. Imitation at L1 is unconsciously done at home for oral usage but consciously used for writing in school.
For the national language Hindi, there is selective imitation based on the responses to the repeated usages like when one student has to say something which the other then acts out. This gets reinforced even in social life, where a student buys something using Hindi with the shop-keeper.

While learning English, students begin practice by copying the model [either the teacher or a recording], followed by application, where the grammatical structure or intonation is used with substitute phrases or situations. Like the word order of a question, or the falling tone of a statement,each one using another word from pictures provided for practice. So each student asks a different question ,applying the same word order and another one replies with an appropriate answer in the prescribed tone. No doubt, some amount of L1 interference creates errors at first, but soon students grasp the rule correctly by noting the contrast with L1. Probably this learning is even stronger than by a monolingual student ..

As Sanskrit and European languages are taught at an older age, selective imitation is very conscious, inferring the rules, contrasting them with known languages and applying them according to need.

English is used as a medium for higher or professional education in India. Therefore ,in adult life, media seems to play an important role where learners borrow effective wording or individual tones used by popular commentators from all over the world, which are found effective in given situations.Particularly, arguments on current topics by experts, help students select particular usages according to the purpose served , therby relating a usage to a function.Even the Ted lectures are used as models for imitation by listeners.

I have a lot of examples in mind, but feel that citing them here would make this writing too long! For sure, it is the performance that fixes the competence.

4 04 2012

I think it’s interesting Chomsky is getting something of a reevalution. His strangle hold over linguistics is quite curious considering he, to my knowledge, has never actually tested any of his theories, they are all just hypothetical. Nattinger and DeCarrico (sp?) I think note that chunks are learnt whole and then broken down. You might want to look at Hoey’s ideas about lexical priming…it is not so much complete imitation but linking together words that are often linked together.

This is certainly my experience of learning a foreign language…I can speak Japanese pretty well and I believe it is largely chunks of imitated language I paste together…this is only anecdotal though.

4 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

I think, Russell that, with regard to Chomsky, the operative tense is ‘got some re-evaluation’, not ‘is getting’.There have been many scholars who, for a long time now, have remained profundly sceptical, not to say completely dismissive, of the notion that we are ‘hard-wired’ for language, and that there is such a thing as Universal Grammar – i.e. the motor that generates those rules that account of our linguistic creativity. Rather, as Tomasello (2003) argues, “The human capacity for language is best seen as a conspiracy of many different cognitive, social-cognitive, information-processing, and learning skills, some of which human beings share with other primates and some of which are unique products of human evolution” (p. 321). One of these skills is the capacity to imitate, and to do so intentionally and adaptively.

5 04 2012

Dear Scott,

I was delighted to see the cover of the book by Vygotsky in this post, because I have been rereading it myself quite recently, digging out more and more thought-provoking data and ideas in it.

As for the imitation idea and the sequence Listen! Imitate! Understand! Figure it out! it does exist in modern methodology under the name of guided discovery. While the Audio-lingual method left the process of figuring out the rule incomplete, unfinished, limiting it to mere repetition of sample sentences to create automaticity, guided discovery is aimed to finish the process of figuring out the rule by helping the student to form awareness, mental presentation, i.e. explicit knowledge of various kinds of the rule. The key feature of this student-created knowledge is its full, 100% adaptation to the student’s internal system of knowledge. It can be quite an amazing discovery for the teacher after having students figure out the rule, to ask them for their verbalized explanation of the rule, the way they have understood it. My experience — no grammar reference book writer has ever managed to provide explanations with such creativity and simplicity. This can be applied to practically any age, even young learners (six and above) are able to interpret rules verbally after going through the process of guided discovery and noticing the pattern.. Yet having become explicit the “the figured-out” rule does not guarantee that it will remain available for monitoring one’s speech until it becomes automated. Young children up to the age of 12 are not able to monitor their speech behaviour (which is just one form of their behaviour) due to the lack of developed consciousness, abstract thinking abilities, i.e. cognitive maturity. That’s why they are those learners who are in need of more mere repetition practice, meaningful drilling (term from the book How languages are learned by Nina Spada and al) ideally combining focus on form and meaning. Yet this process of figuring out the rule with the help of the teacher is what is called teaching in my opinion. Moreover, Vygotsky’s notion of imitation can be extended to mean a form of scaffolding, i.e. imitating not only a word or a chunk or a sentence by repeating it, but imitating the process of figuring out the rule for the further independent self-discovery.

As for the Silent Way it IS based on imitation of very limited input, just one utterance for a start, but the process of imitation is integrated into “figuring out” stage, there is a lot of teacher guidance through her body language, either approving or disapproving the student’s attempt in producing the utterance accurately, i.e. imitating it. The method does work, because through this labour of reconstructuring the teacher’s model, a solid piece of explicit knowledge is created which becomes available for longer time as a tool to monitor one’s output.

This sequence Listen! Imitate! Understand! Figure it! is what teaching is about because it makes a bridge between acquisition and learning. And it calls for more teacher presence in the lesson, the teacher being not just someone who provides comprehensible input. In the long run, the result of this work is creating a SYSTEM of knowledge in the student’s head, developing him cognitively to much higher levels of abstract thinking.

Does it all make sense, sorry?

6 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

Thanks, Svetlans – yes, perfect sense – except that I am still uncertain as to how much imitation without truly understanding can be tolerated – at least be some learners. After all, the case for providing comprehensible input, as argued by Krashen, assumes understanding is both necessary and sufficient, i.e. that there is no learning without understanding. A listen-and-imitate model seems to reverse this sequence, assuming that understanding will emerge out of opportunities for retrieving, reassembling and experimenting with the imitated elements.

As for guided discovery, I tend to agree with you – there’s a disussion about it on this blog, in fact. You’ll find it here.

Thanks once again.

9 04 2012

Dear Scott,
thank you very much for your reply.
Can i ask you another question? What method implies imitation without understading?
And understanding — what does it mean?
In my view imitation is successful and makes sense only if the learner undertands three dimentions of what he repeats — where and when I say it (pragmatics), what I say (meaning) and how i say it (form). But the most essential thing is understanding why i am repeating it (motivation). Forced Imitation against the learner’s will is the one that can’t be tolerated by any learner. Moreover, it may even inhibit further learning. Vygotsky claims that formal education based on such forced imitation doesn’t lead to any development, quoting Leo Tolstoy in the same book, chapter 6.
I have but agree — forced imitation is harmful, therefore can’t be tolerated as you say.
But what method does it? The only one i can think of is declenions< conjugations, etc in the Grammar Translation. What else?

9 04 2012
Scott Thornbury

“Can i ask you another question? What method implies imitation without understanding?”

Answer: The method that is advertised in the pictures I uploaded in my original post: You listen. You repeat. You understand.

I used to ridicule this. Now I’m wondering if the imitation of only dimly understood utterances may in fact feed into language use and thence language acquisition.

9 04 2012

Yet you have but agree that some of the language in first language aquisition is imitated and later gets acquired without clear thought (meaning) behind it (PPP sequence) For example, names of colours. The opposite process is when there is a thought first but no word for it (TBL cycle).

24 06 2012

Dear Scott,
I have really enjoyed the articles in “An A to Z of ELT”. Reading them has greatly helped me reflect on what I learned from the past and revise my ideas. Thanks anyway.
I especially like the idea:”populate the words of others with one’s own intentions’. The key is in “one’s own intentions” where the child may extend the input he has received to novel situations, hence, an indication of creativity. It may also try to achieve a different goal than the one for which the input had been used.
I have a question: It is clear that both native and non native speakers are creative language users. However, non native speakers’ creativity would depend on the amount of exposure to the language, the more exposure, the more creative. I wonder if we can discuss creativity of both native and non native speakers in terms of amount given the fact that the language used by native speakers is more idiomatic and metaphorical ,and non native speakers tend to avoid idiomatic language. A trace of non native speaker-ism can always be traced in their speech.

5 09 2020
Nili Pinhasi

Hey Scott! I enjoyed your post very much! A thought provoking topic, thanks!
By the way, Eva Hoffman describes her experiences growing up in Canada, not in the US, where she moved to as an adult. (Just a detail, doesn’t change the relevance of the quote 😉 One of the best immigration-story books!

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