P is for Prescriptive

2 10 2011

I’m puzzled why my MA students have so much trouble getting their heads around the prescriptive- descriptive distinction. But, then, they’re probably puzzled as to why I think it matters so much.

Some defining might be in order. To quote from An A-Z of ELT, “If a prescriptive grammar is about how people should speak, a descriptive one is about how people do speak”.  Thus,  a prescriptivist will argue that taller than me is wrong, and that, for various abstruse reasons, it should be taller than I.  A descriptive grammar would simply state (as does the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English, Biber, et al. 1999, p. 336) that, after as and than, “both nominative and accusative forms occur”, and that the accusative forms (e.g. taller than me) “are predominant…especially in conversation”. So, while prescriptivism is about opinions, descriptivism claims to be about facts.

Why do I think that the distinction matters? Well, because a lot of trainees, coming to ELT fresh, tend to associate grammar teaching with the kind of ‘good style guide’ grammar that they got at school. They think grammar teaching is going to be all about not starting sentences with ‘And’ or not ending them with a preposition. They may mistakenly see themselves as part of this tradition – as guardians of the cultural legacy enshrined as ‘proper English’.  They may have been indoctrinated into the view that “students should be taught that correct speaking is evidence of culture; and that in order to speak correctly they must master the rules that govern the use of the language” (from an editorial in The Detroit Free Press, 1928, quoted in Fries, 1940).

However, this is not the problem with my students. Quite the opposite. The problem is that they come to associate all rules with prescriptivism. Thus, the rule that “to form the past tense of regular verbs, you add –ed to the base form of the verb” is considered prescriptive – simply because it’s a rule.

But this is to confuse rules-as-regularities with rules-as-regulations.  Adding –ed is something we regularly do; saying taller than I is something we don’t do regularly, but which (according to prescriptivists) we ought to. Theirs is an attempt to regulate language use.

There’s an added problem, however, and that is: are student grammars really that descriptive? After all, the so-called pedagogic grammar – which purports to be a sub-set of the rules of descriptive grammar – is by definition selective. It selects some usages and ignores others. And the usages it selects are those that are considered standard – or the norm.  But a norm is only a norm because it has been accepted by a speech community as such. It has been validated.  What the grammar describes is what the speech community prescribes. As Cameron (1995) argues, “there is no escape from normativity”.

Moreover, in order to obviate the messiness of exceptions, pedagogic grammars tend to be more assertive than they need to be – often at the cost of accuracy. Rather than stating rules, they issue edicts.   (Perhaps they should be called ‘pedantic grammars’).  So we get:

Some verbs are used only in simple tenses. For example,  “You cannot say ‘I am knowing’. You can only say I know. (Murphy, 1985, p. 6)

And they use the ‘we’ word a lot, too. So you get:

We can make negative sentences with nobody, nothing… With these words, we do not use not…:

He said nothing. (NOT He didn’t say nothing)

(Swan & Walter, 2001, p. 114).

Who is this we? At times, it starts to sound a little like the royal we. It starts to sound very prescriptive. No wonder my students get confused.

Not just my students – there is a strong sense generally that description = good; prescription = bad. Nevertheless, there is one area of language teaching where most teachers are happy to be prescriptive, and that is vocabulary. We regularly caution students not to use words that are considered offensive or vulgar, even if they are commonly used by native-speakers. Dictionaries do the same. They shamelessly prescribe. And, because of this, they are excellent sources for tracking shifts in cultural values. Consider the two entries (below) from the first edition of the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (1948) and the same entries from the 6th edition (2000).

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge

This should serve to remind us that, as Cameron (op. cit) puts it, “we are all of us closet prescriptivists”.  As she explains:

I have never met anyone who did not subscribe, in one way or another, to the belief that language can be ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, ‘good’ or ‘bad’, more or less ‘elegant’ or ‘effective’ or ‘appropriate’.  Of course, there is massive disagreement about what values to espouse, and how to define them.  Yet however people may pick and choose, it is rare to find anyone rejecting altogether the idea that there is some legitimate authority in language’ (p.9).

References:

Biber, D., Johansson, S., Leech, G., Conrad, S., & Finegan, E. 1999. Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English. Harlow: Longman.

Cameron, D. 1995. Verbal Hygiene. London: Routledge.

Fries, C. C. 1940. American English Grammar. Tokyo: Maruzen.

Murphy, R. 1985. English Grammar in Use. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Swan, M., and Walter, C. 2001. The Good Grammar Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





B is for Bad language learner

25 09 2011

Mayor Bloomberg

As a precaution against the recent hurricane that threatened his city, the mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg, “issued warnings and press statements, often in basic, un-accented [sic] Spanish”.  This prompted a Spanish-speaking New York resident to launch a Twitter feed that  caricatured the Mayor’s “broken Spanish”. “The feed soon went viral and has attracted a large online following” (according to the BBC’s website).

As a second language user myself, and as a language teacher,  teacher trainer and methodology writer, it offends me when anyone who attempts to communicate in a language that is not their own (whether they be mayor, football coach, actor, ex-pat, or student) is mocked in this way. However ‘bad’ his Spanish is, surely the mayor should be congratulated, not caricatured?

I tweeted to this effect – that I didn’t find it particularly funny, and that this seemed to be a case of ‘damned if he does, damned if he doesn’t’. However, a fellow tweeter in Brazil, Higor Cavalcante, went so far as to blog his disagreement, arguing that, as mayor of a city with a large Hispanic population “Mr. Bloomberg has the obligation to speak excellent Spanish”. (Not to mention Chinese, Greek, Yiddish and Korean either, I suppose).

Excellent Spanish.  Not just good, or passable, but excellent.

I suspect Higor is a good language learner.  He certainly writes beautifully in English. But maybe Mayor Bloomberg is not a good language learner. I’m sure he would love to be able to speak excellent Spanish, but maybe for him excellence comes at a cost – a cost that even his billions can’t meet.  Yet  should he be penalised for trying?

Good language learners often find it difficult to understand what it’s like to be a bad language learner.  They think you can just flip a switch and out it flows. As a bad language learner myself, I run up against this constantly.

Ok, I said it. I am a bad language learner. I am a bad language learner for a variety of reasons, biographical, psychological and maybe even physiological (I have terrible ‘phonemic coding ability’ – maybe related to the fact that I can’t sing in tune either!).

It’s not that I haven’t tried. I’ve been to classes, I’ve done conversation exchanges, I’ve studied the grammar, I’ve memorised lists of words, and I read five to ten thousand words of Spanish daily.  Yet I’m still barely B2-ish, speaking-wise, exacerbated by an uncompromising anglo accent.

But I get by.   I’ll always sound like a guiri (or gringo) but I can live with that, despite the scorn heaped on me by other, more proficient Spanish speakers. (Once a Californian woman, on hearing me speak, held up her arms in the shape of a cross, as if to ward off evil spirits). As I said, good language learners seem to think that anyone can learn a language to C2 level in a matter of months – and that the failure to do so betrays some moral weakness.  But for us drones, it will take years and years, and we may still never  get beyond B2 (or even A2 for that matter).  However, we shouldn’t be discouraged from trying. Mockery doesn’t help. Nor the implication that our lack of success is a moral failing.

I took this photo

Besides, how many hundreds of hours would it take to bring Mayor Bloomberg’s Spanish up to a level that would satisfy his critics?  And doesn’t he have better things to do with his time? He’s the mayor of New York City, for heaven’s sake.  His time is cut out just getting the trash collected and the subway running on time. If New Yorkers want a Spanish-speaking mayor, let them vote for one.

So, a plea on behalf of the bad language learner: never, never, never mock a second language speaker – even if it’s someone (like George Bush or José María  Aznar) whose politics you disagree with. It’s a cheap shot. And, if you are a language teacher, it ill becomes you.  It’s your job to encourage second language use, however non-target-like. What’s more, ridicule is counterproductive.  There is nothing more de-motivating than being laughed at.   As Earl Stevick (1980, p. 130) eloquently put it:

When two people speak with each other in a language that is foreign to one of them, either or both may be laying their lives on the line – at least their lives as speakers of that language. Such an understanding therefore calls for sensitivity on both sides. Sensitivity here means more than just seeing the dangers and shying away from them. It includes sensitivity to what the other person is able to do, and is ready to try.

On the plus side, I think that being a bad language learner has made me a good language teacher. I am very, very sympathetic to the drones.  I know what they’re going through. I am endlessly patient and encouraging. I would never mock them, because I know how de-motivating it can be.

So, Señor Alcalde, all power to you  – I applaud your bad Spanish!  At least you are trying.

Reference:

Stevick, E.W. 1980. Teaching Languages: A Way and Ways. Rowley, MA: Newbury House.





B is for Blogging

18 09 2011

It seems appropriate to resume blogging, after a short break, by blogging about blogging.

I recently got a request from an MA TESOL student at Durham University, who is writing her dissertation on blogging in ELT:

My focus will be on the question of how teachers and academics use blogs to push forward their ideas. I have been following your blog for a while now and would be interested in analysing it for my work. In order to get a detailed understanding of ELT blogs and blogging practices in general, it would be really helpful if I could get more information about your blog and blogging practices.

Here is my response to five of the questions I was sent.

 

My thanks to Kerstin Müller for initiating this discussion.





N is for Not interfering

7 08 2011

In 1966, Leonard Newmark wrote a prescient article called How not to interfere with language learning. For various reasons, the notion of not interfering has come back to me repeatedly over the last couple of weeks.

1. A colleague sent me a copy of a book he recently published, called The Mindful Teacher (MacDonald & Shirley, 2009). In this, he and his co-author advocate an antidote to what they describe as ‘alienated teaching’, and recommend strategies teachers can use to become more ‘mindful’. One such strategy (or synergy) is simply stopping. “And then stopping again. And then again.”  They comment: “It might seem ridiculous to imagine that simply stopping could be described as emancipatory. We are socialized to believe that being busy is a virtue.”  However, this constant busy-ness distracts us from responding, in a calm and reflective manner, to the complex nature of classroom events. So, drawing on principles derived from meditation, they make a good case for “stopping and taking an inner account of what is transpiring, and not allowing yourself to be rushed into actions that you might regret later” (p. 65).

2. In a second-hand bookstore in Boston,  I ran to earth a mint copy of an old favourite, Earl Stevick’s Memory, Meaning & Method (1976), and almost accidentally came across the following advice: “Teach, then test, then get out of the way” (p. 122). Stevick goes on:

“By failing – or even refusing – to get out of the way, the teacher becomes the Controlling Parent. Just how often to ‘get out of the way,’ and how soon, and how far, are matters of judgement which cannot be prescribed here or in any other book. In general, however, most of us would do well to step further aside, and sooner and more often, than we are accustomed to doing. As the teacher learns to limit himself, he can give more independent meaning and value to others in the classroom” (p. 123).

3. A comment in last week’s blog (Z is for Zero Uncertainty) reminded me of a great little article on reading that came out in the ELT Journal a long while back, in which, amongst other excellent advice, Ray Williams recommends that “teachers [of reading]  must learn to be quiet: all too often, teachers interfere with and so impede their learners’ reading development by being too dominant and by talking too much” (Williams,1986, p. 44).  He adds that “the primary activity of a reading lesson should be learners reading texts” (p. 42).

4. A week or so ago, I posted the following comment on Kevin Giddens’ fascinating blog on ‘Do Nothing Teaching’:

I read this piece in the NY Times yesterday, on ‘do nothing gardening’ (http://tinyurl.com/445ysgv) and there was a mention of a piece in the New Yorker titled ‘Don’t just do something. Stand there!” This intrigued me so I googled it, and came across this book: Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter (Weisbrod & Janoff, 2007).

The blurb for the book goes like this:

Most people think meetings are all too often a waste of time. But Weisbrod and Janoff say that’s only because of the way most meetings are run. In this book they offer ten principles that will allow you to get more done in meetings by doing less. The key is knowing what you can and can’t control. You can’t control people’s motives, behavior, or attitudes. That’s one area where most meeting leaders’ attempts to “do something” actually end up doing nothing at all. But you can control the conditions under which people interact, and you can control your own reactions.

The 'hole in the wall'

4. Last month I gave a talk at the New School in which I mentioned the work of Sugata Mitra, and his amazing Hole-in-the-wall project in India. By analogy with minimally invasive surgery, Mitra has coined the term minimally invasive education, which he defines (on the above website) thus:

“Minimally Invasive Education is defined as a pedagogic method that uses the learning environment to generate an adequate level of motivation to induce learning in groups of children, with minimal, or no, intervention by a teacher”.

6. Finally, all this had me hunting out an email from another colleague who had written to me, describing how, in rural Catalonia, he and his partner set up a very successful immersion program for business people needing English. He commented:

If you’re lucky enough to get people at the right moment in their learning trajectory (lower intermediate sort of thing), these courses strike the punters as almost miraculous, specially if they’ve spent years struggling through more traditional English classes.  They blossom: they start really getting a handle on things, they gain confidence, and they’re off. The secret, as you well know, is to let them talk, and gently guide them: just prime them, give them a bit of help and feedback now and then (just to show you’re still there), and let them go. What I’ve learned in my long career as an English teacher is to just shut up, not to jump into a silence, and not to offer advice until it’s asked for.  If ever I were to write a book for EFL teachers, I’d call it “Get out of the f***ing way!”

On that note, I’m going to stop.

I mean, really stop. I need a break.  I’ll be back in September. Stay tuned!

References:

MacDonald, E., & Shirley, D. (2009). The Mindful Teacher. New York, NY: Teachers College Press.

Newmark, L. (1966). How not to interfere with language learning. Reprinted in Brumfit, C., and Johnson, K. (Eds.) (1979). The Communicative Approach to Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Stevick, E. W. (1976). Memory, Meaning & Method: Some psychological perspectives on language learning. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Weisbrod, M., & Janoff, S. (2007). Don’t Just Do Something, Stand There!: Ten Principles for Leading Meetings That Matter. Berrett-Koehler Publishers.

Williams, R. (1986). ‘Top ten’ principles for teaching reading. ELT Journal, 40/1.





Z is for Zero Uncertainty

31 07 2011

Mr Grumpy Blogger

Here is a listening sequence that could be from any current coursebook:

Pre-listening: 1. What do you know about garden gnomes? Have you ever had a garden gnome? Have you ever lost a garden gnome? Etc. Scrum down and talk to your mates. [This is the ‘activating schema’ stage]

2. Here are some words you’d better know: toadstool, abducted, postcard, package tour, gnomic… etc. [= Pre-teach some vocab that may or may not be crucial to an understanding of the text]

3. Here is a picture of a man looking at a postcard showing his garden gnome in St Peter’s Square. Here he is again, being interviewed. What questions is he being asked? What answers is he giving? [= Activating predictive skills so as to make listening to the ensuing interview more or less redundant]

Listening

1. Listen to this [pretend] interview with a [pretend] person whose [pretend] garden gnome was nicked, and do this task.

Put the interviewer’s questions in order. (The first one has been done for you).

  1. And how does this story end?
  2. I hear you lost your gnome. Tell me about it. (1)
  3. So what did you do?

[= easy gist listening question – so easy you don’t actually have to listen to the text to do it]

2. Listen again, and say why these words are mentioned: Red Square; front lawn; the Great Pyramid of Cheops. [= deeper level processing – and this is as deep as it gets]

Follow-up

Imagine you are a garden gnome who has been kidnapped and sent abroad. Write a postcard detailing your adventure. [= er, follow-up]

Why do I have problems with this kind of sequence?

Well, apart from the naff content and the scripted nature of the text (why are 90% of all coursebook listenings still scripted?), I really can’t figure out in what way learners are any better off after the process than they were before it.

Can we say, hand on heart, that this very superficial treatment of spoken texts has improved their listening skills one jot? For a start, by activating their top-down processing skills (world knowledge, predictive abilities, etc) and by setting only the easiest of gist checking questions, the learners have been so cushioned against having to engage with the language in the text at anything but the most superficial level that it’s very difficult to see how such a sequence prepares them for real-life listening at all, let alone teaches them anything new about the language.

This is like looking at the target language from 30,000 feet. But that’s where the learners are already. They’re very used to not really understanding texts, so why should they want to not really understand them in the classroom, too?

While it may get students into a text (and compensate for the lack of visual information, in the case of audio-only listening tasks), an over-dependence on top-down processing (i.e. using background knowledge, non-linguistic and contextual clues, etc) may delude both learners and teachers into thinking that linguistic information can safely be ignored. Or that having no more unanswered questions about a text (a state that Frank Smith calls ‘zero uncertainty’) is not a realistic, nor even a desirable, outcome.

As a second language user, I hate having unanswered questions. I hate being in the cinema at an Almodóvar film surrounded by cackling Spaniards, and not getting the joke. I hate missing the plane because I misheard the announcement and went to the wrong gate. I don’t like 50% uncertainty, or even 5% uncertainty. I crave zero uncertainty.

Students transcribing (photo courtesy of Eltpics)

So, how would I improve the sequence? Simply by the addition of further layers and layers of questions that probe and probe and probe at the learners’ emergent understanding, until not a word has been by-passed, not a discourse marker ignored, not a verb ending overlooked, and not a question left unanswered. And the sequence would culminate in a word-by-word transcription task – not of the whole text, necessarily – but of a decent-sized chunk of it.

But, to withstand the weight of so much probing, I would need a text that was of much more intrinsic interest, educational value, and linguistic capital than one about abducted garden gnomes!

Reference:

Smith, F. (2004) Understanding Reading (6th edition). Lawrence Erlbaum.





P is for Primate language

24 07 2011

I’ve just seen this somewhat dispiriting documentary about Nim, one of a number of primates who have been sequestered, domesticated, scrutinised, feted, and ultimately abandoned in the name of linguistic research.  Even the shots of the Columbia University forecourt that I walk through every day failed to enliven a story of wanton cruelty, institutional pettiness, dodgy science and bad hair.

The film charts a succession of sudden, traumatic abductions, starting when baby Nim was snatched screaming from his mother’s arms. Over a period of several years, with only humans to interact with, the young chimp was taught to sign, using an adapted form of  American Sign Language, and acquiring a working vocabulary of several hundred words. When he outgrew his cute and cuddly stage, and/or when the funding ran out, he was packed off to a sort of primate Guantánamo Bay. The story is only slightly redeemed by the efforts of one of his former minders to track him down. Even in his hoary old age, Nim still retains a trace of his former competence, pathetically signing ‘play’ from within the bars of his prison.

Columbia University

Frustratingly, the film hardly touches on the linguistic controversies that fuelled this research. In the 1970s, when this unhappy story took place, the debate as to whether only humans are innately equipped with a modular language acquisition device (LAD) was still a fairly hot issue. Not for nothing was Nim named Nim Chimpsky, in (cute) recognition of Noam Chomsky’s role as the leading protagonist of the debate.

What was at stake was this: if highly intelligent apes, exposed to a similar linguistic environment as human children, could acquire an extensive lexicon, but fail to develop even the rudiments of a ‘grammar’, this would go some way towards supporting the view that humans are uniquely hard-wired for language acquisition. On the other hand, if evidence of syntax, however primitive, could be demonstrated, Chomsky’s notion of a ‘Universal Grammar’ (UG) would either need to be extended to nonhuman primates, or it would need to be re-evaluated entirely.

And the findings? Nim’s vocabulary was impressive, but more impressive still was his ability to form two-sign, three-sign, and even longer strings: MORE EAT, HUG NIM, BANANA EAT ME NIM, etc. Moreover, a superficial analysis of the data would suggest that Nim was operating according to some kind of embryonic grammar, producing word order patterns not dissimilar to those of human children’s first utterances. For example, he consistently placed the sign for MORE in front of the sign it modified:  MORE TICKLE, MORE DRINK, etc. But, as Jean Aitchison (1983) notes, “a closer analysis showed that the appearance of order was an illusion. Nim simply had a statistical preference for placing certain words in certain places, while other words showed no such preference” (p.55).

However, as Roger Brown(1973) argued, with regard to similar results for Washoe, an earlier case study of primate signing, “While appropriate order can be used as evidence for the intention to express semantic relations, the lack of such order does not establish the absence of such intentions” (p. 41). This is because the use of appropriate word order, of the verb-object type, for example, as in GIVE BALL, is not strictly necessary, since the context in which the utterances are generated usually resolves any ambiguity. That is to say, the pragmatics of the situation renders syntax redundant. But if that is the case, why do (human) children show evidence of a proto-syntax right from the start?

In the end, we don’t seem to be much the wiser as to whether the higher primates have a rudimentary LAD, despite all the anguish that was inflicted in trying to find one. Nor, for that matter, do we really know whether humans have an LAD either, or whether their faculty for language acquisition isn’t just a spin-off of their vastly more developed cognitive capacities.

What we do know is that the chimpanzees who have been studied do not use their linguistic capacities in the same way as humans, even very young ones, do. Nim, for example, rarely initiated a conversation, and was unable to grasp the basics of turn-taking. As Aitchison (1983, p. 57) concludes, “Nim did not use his signs in the structured, creative, social way that is characteristic of human children”.

In fact, Nim’s ‘language’ was simply a more elaborated version of the way chimpanzees use gestures and vocalizations in the wild: to regulate two-way social interactions such as grooming, feeding, and play. As Tomasello (2003, p. 11) puts it, nonhuman primate communication functions “almost exclusively for imperative motives, to request a behavior of others, not to share attention or information with others in a disinterested manner”.

As someone once said, “Your dog can tell you he is hungry, but not that his father was poor but happy”.

References:

Aitchison, J. (1983). The Articulate Mammal: An Introduction to Psycholinguistics (2nd edn). New York: Universe Books.

Brown, R. (1973). A First Language: The Early Stages. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.

Tomasello, M. (2003) Constructing a Language: A Usage-based Theory of Language Acquisition. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard University Press.





V is for Variability

17 07 2011

“O, swear not by the moon, the inconstant moon,
That monthly changes in her circled orb,
Lest that thy love prove likewise variable.”

(Romeo & Juliet)

I have Shakespeare on the brain at the moment, having splashed out on tickets for three of the five shows that the Royal Shakespeare Company is putting on in New York this summer.

And, just by chance, I came across a fascinating book on Shakespeare’s grammar, first published in 1870, which details not only the differences between Elizabethan and modern grammar, but also documents – even celebrates – the enormous variability in the former. As the author, E.A. Abbott notes, in Elizabethan English, at least on a superficial view, “any irregularities whatever, whether in the formation of words or in the combination of words into sentences, are allowable” (Abbott,  1870, 1966, p. 5).

He proceeds to itemise some of the inconsistencies of Shakespeare’s grammar: “Every variety of apparent grammatical inaccuracy meets us. He for him, him for he; spoke and took, for spoken and taken; plural nominatives with singular verbs;  relatives omitted where they are now considered necessary; … double negatives; double comparatives (‘more better,’ &c.) and superlatives; … and lastly, some verbs apparently with two nominatives, and others without any nominative at all” (p. 6).

As examples of how this variability manifests itself even within the same sentence, consider the following:

None are so surely caught when they are catch’d  (Love‘s Labour Lost)

Where is thy husband now? Where be thy brothers? Where are thy children? (Richard III)

If thou beest not immortal, look about you (Julius Caesar)

I never loved you much; but I ha’ prais’d ye (Anthony and Cleopatra)

Makes both my body pine and soul to languish (Pericles)

Is there not wars? Is there not employment? (2 Henry IV)

Part of the RSC's summer season in NYC

Of course, we can attribute a lot of Shakespeare’s ‘errors’ to the requirements of prosody or to the negligence of typesetters. But many more may be due to what Abbott calls “the unfixed nature of the language”: “It must be remembered that the Elizabethan was a transitional period in the history of the English language” (p. 6). Hence the seemingly free variation between is and be, between thou forms and you forms, and between ye and you.  Likewise,  do-questions freeely alternate with verb inversion:

Countess. Do you love my son?
Helena. Your pardon, noble mistress!
Countess. Love you my son?
Helena. Do not you love him, madam?

(All’s Well That Ends Well)

Elizabethan English was clearly in a state of flux, but is English any less variable now than it was in Shakespeare’s time, I wonder?  Think of the way adjective + -er comparatives are yielding to more + adjective  forms (see this comment on a previous post), or of the way past conditionals are mutating (which I wrote about here), or of the way I’m loving it is just the tip of an iceberg whereby stative verbs are becoming dynamic (mentioned in passing here). Think of the way the present perfect/past simple distinction has  become elided in some registers of American English (Did you have breakfast yet?) or how like has become an all-purpose quotative (He’s like ‘Who, me?’) or how going forward has become a marker of futurity.

That variation is a fact of linguistic life has long been recognised by sociolinguists. As William Labov wrote, as long ago as 1969:

“One of the fundamental principles of sociolinguistic investigation might simply be stated as There are no single-style speakers. By this we mean that every speaker will show some variation in phonological and syntactic rules according to the immediate context in which he is speaking” (1969, 2003, p. 234).

More recently, as seen through the lens of complex systems theory, all language use – whether the language of a social group or the language of an individual – is subject to constant variation. “A language is not a fixed system. It varies in usage over speakers, places, and time” (Ellis, 2009, p. 139).  Shakespeare’s language was probably no more nor less variable than that of an English speaker today. As Diane Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53)  puts it: “From a Complexity Theory perspective, flux is an integral part of any system. It is not as though there was some uniform norm from which individuals deviate. Variability stems from the ongoing self-organization of systems of activity”. In other words, variability, both at the level of the social group or at the level of the individual, is not ‘noise’ or ‘error’, but is in integral part of the system as it evolves and adapts.

If language is in a constant state of flux, and if there is no such thing as ‘deviation from the norm’ – that is to say, if there is no error, as traditionally conceived – where does that leave us,  as course designers, language teachers, and language testers? Put another way, how do we align the inherent variability of the learner’s emergent system with the inherent variability of the way that the language is being used by its speakers? If language is like “the inconstant moon/that monthly changes in her circled orb”, how do we get the measure of it?

In attempting to provide a direction, Larsen-Freeman (2010, p. 53) is instructive:

“We need to take into account learners’ histories, orientations and intentions, thoughts and feelings. We need to consider the tasks that learners perform and to consider each performance anew — stable and predictable in part, but at the same time, variable, flexible, and dynamically adapted to fit the changing situation. Learners actively transform their linguistic world; they do not just conform to it”.

References:

Abbot, E.A. 1870. A Shakespearean Grammar: An attempt to illustrate some of the differences between Elizabethan and Modern English. London: Macmillan, re-published in 1966 by Dover Publications, New York.

Ellis, N. 2009. ‘Optimizing the input: frequency and sampling in usage-based and form-focused learning.’ In Long, M. & Doughty, C. (eds.) The Handbook of Language Teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.

Labov, W. 1969. ‘Some sociolinguistic principles’. Reprinted in Paulston, C.B., & Tucker, G.R. (eds.) (2003) Sociolinguistics: The Essential Readings. Oxford: Blackwell.

Larsen-Freeman, D. 2010. ‘The dynamic co-adaptation of cognitive and social views: A Complexity Theory perspective’. In Batstone, R. (ed.) Sociocognitive Perspectives on Language Use and Language Learning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.