M is for Mind

22 04 2012

Words come out of the mouth and go into the ear. But they’re stored in the mind. And retrieved from the mind. And understood in the mind. They’re also learned in the mind.

That, at least, is the conventional wisdom – especially from the point of view of cognitive psychology. ‘Language is instantiated in the minds and therefore the brains of language users, so that linguistics is to be regarded as a branch of psychology’. Thus argues Ray Jackendoff (2002: xiv). Chomsky, of course, took this view to an extreme: the observable messiness of language in use (or performance) ‘surely cannot constitute the actual subject matter of linguistics’ (1965: 4). Rather, ‘linguistic theory is mentalistic, since it is concerned with discovering a mental reality [or competence] underlying such behaviour’ (ibid.).

Theories of second language acquisition follow suit: ‘Second language acquisition is first and foremost a mental process – one that occurs in a behavioural and social context, to be sure, but fundamentally a matter of acquiring a new knowledge system.  Cognition and cognitive factors, therefore, are central to any account of how and why SLA works’ (Long & Richards 2001, p.vii) . Anything else, such as the social contexts in which language is used, or the physical stuff of the brain itself, or even the body in which the mind/brain is housed, are considered marginal, messy, uninteresting – mere noise.

The earliest example I could find of a computer in a coursebook: Headway Intermediate (1986)

Not only is language a mental phenomenon, according to this view, but the ‘mind’ of which it is a product is construed as a kind of computer (or as Pinker [1997: 92] charmingly puts it ‘the on-board computer of a robot made of tissue’). Hence, ‘mental life can be explained in terms of a computational process’ (Johnson-Laird, 1988: 26). Or, put another way, cognition – and, by extension, learning – is basically information-processing.  Furthermore, because of the limitations on the amount of attention that humans can allocate to any particular cognitive task at any one time, this processing is necessarily controlled before it is automatic. In short, humans are ‘limited capacity processors of information’.

This applies equally to language learning, both first and other. As McLaughlin (1987: 133) puts it:

Within this framework, second-language learning is viewed as the acquisition of complex cognitive skill.  To learn a second language is to learn a skill, because various aspects of the task must be practised and integrated into fluent performance.  This requires the automatization of component sub-skills.  Learning is a cognitive process, because it is thought to involve internal representations that regulate and guide performance.

Because learning is a cognitive process, this ‘information processing’ view of learning is known as a cognitivist one, and the metaphor that best captures it is MIND IS COMPUTER.  Associated with this model, therefore, we find a host of information-processing terms like input, intake, output, feedback, automatization, filters, as well as the term processing itself. And, because cognition is implicated, we find a further set of terms like noticing, attention, consciousness-raising, and restructuring.

from Reward (1994)

How does this actually impact on current methodology?  On the one hand, you could argue that all these various models of mind and language operate at a level far removed from actual classroom practice, and that teachers carry on doing what they’ve always done – that is, teaching effectively.  On the other hand, you could also argue that the ‘mind is a computer’ metaphor has percolated down (or up?) and underpins many of our methodological practices and materials, including the idea that language learning is systematic, linear, incremental, enclosed, uniform, dependent on input and practice, independent of its social context, de-humanized, disembodied,  … and so on.

It is a model of language learning that, arguably, turns the learner into an automaton –  ‘a robot made of tissue’.  As David Block (2003: 97) notes, ‘in the ideal world of cognitive scientists, the human mind is still conceived of as dependent on external stimuli to which it responds…The adoption of the computer metaphor of input-output does not disguise the fact that there is still a view of mental behaviour as systematic and mechanistic’.

Is there an alternative model – an alternative metaphor, even?

Block (2003: 93) goes on to argue that there are ‘a growing number of scholars who subscribe to the view that mental processes are as social as they are individual and external as they are internal’. (Some of these approaches I’ve referenced in previous posts, such as E is for Ecology, A is for Affordance and B is for Body). Contrasting cognitive with what they loosely call sociocultural approaches, Foster and Ohta (2005:  403) note that, for the latter

Language development is essentially a social process.  These approaches view mind as distributed and learning as something inter-mental, embedded in social interaction.  This means that individuals and environments mutually constitute one another and persons are not considered to be separable from the environments and interactions through which language development occurs.  In this view, knowledge is not owned solely by the learner, but is also a property of social settings and the interface between person and social context.

Elementary Matters (1997)

The distributed nature of mind is a core tenet of theories of ‘situated cognition’, neatly captured here by Clark (2011: 70):

Extended systems theorists… reject the image of mind as a kind of input-output sandwich with cognition as the filling….  Instead, we confront an image of the local mechanisms of human cognition quite literally bleeding out into body and world.

What, I wonder, would be the characteristics of a methodology that subscribed to this distributed, ‘leaky’, and co-adaptive view of mind? And, specifically, what are the correlates of input and of noticing, in this alternative to a computational, information-processing model of language learning?


Block, D.  (2003) The Social Turn In Second Language Acquisition, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Clark, A. (2011) Supersizing the Mind: Embodiment, Action, and Cognitive Extension, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Chomsky, N. (1965) Aspects of the Theory of Syntax, Cambridge, MA: The M.I.T. Press.

Foster, P. and Ohta, A. (2005) ‘Negotiation for meaning and peer assistance in second language classrooms’, Applied Linguistics, 26, 3,

Jackendoff, R. (2002) Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Johnson-Laird, P.  N.  (1988) The Computer and the Mind: An Introduction to Cognitive Science, Cambridge, MA:  Harvard University Press.

Long, M. and Richards, J. (2001) ‘Series editors’ preface’, in Robinson, P.  (Ed.)  Cognition and Second Language Instruction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

McLaughlin, B. (1987) Theories of Second-and Language Learning, London: Edward Arnold.

Pinker, S. (1997) How The Mind Works, London: Penguin.

M is for Memorization

8 04 2011

What lessons can psychology teach us about second language instruction?

In a recent book on the psychology of second language acquisition, Zoltán Dörnyei (2009) draws six practical implications from current research findings, one being that instruction “should be meaning focused and personally engaging” (p.302). Nothing surprising about that, perhaps, but what about his claim that instructed SLA should incorporate an element of rote learning?

Reviewing this book in the latest ELT Journal, Steven McDonough asks “Surely he is not suggesting that learners should learn grammar rules by heart?” (McDonough, 2011, p. 195). Since I don’t yet have the book, I have no way of checking. But in an earlier work on the same subject, Dörnyei (2005) traces the history of rote learning and its relation to aptitude, starting with Carroll’s (1981) claim that language aptitude comprises four constituent abilities, one of which is “rote learning ability”. This is “the ability to learn associations between sounds and meaning rapidly and efficiently, and to retain these associations” (Carroll, 1981, p.105). Accordingly, the Modern Languages Aptitude Test (MLAT), which Carroll had a hand in, includes a rote learning component: “Students have a total of four minutes to memorize 24 Kurdish/English word pairs. Retention is tested by means of a multiple choice test…” (cited in Dörnyei, 2005, p. 37). (Easy if you’re Kurdish, of course!)

Subsequently, Skehan (1998), in his own model of language aptitude, retains an important role for memory, and notes that “memory, although traditionally associated with the acquisition of new information, is also concerned with retrieval, and with the way elements are stored… Fast-access memory systems… are what allow output to be orchestrated into fluent performance” (p.204). It’s not enough to know a lot of words, obviously. You have to be able to retrieve them, and at speed.

Skehan also reviews some case studies of exceptional language learners, and concludes: “To be exceptionally good at second or foreign language learning seems to require possession of unusual memory abilities, particularly the retention of verbal material. Exceptional L2 ability does not seem to rest upon unusual talent with a rule-based aspects of the language, but rather on a capacity to absorb very large quantities of verbal material, in such a way that they become available for actual language use” (p.221).

If memorizing large quantities of ‘verbal material’ is a characteristic of exceptional learners, can less exceptional learners be trained to get similar results?

In a fascinating study of three Chinese learners of English, all of whom were rated as having achieved a high degree of communicative proficiency, Ding (2007) tracks the role that the rote-learning of huge quantities of text played in their linguistic accomplishments. As the abstract reports, “The interviewees regarded text memorization and imitation as the most effective methods of learning English. They had been initially forced to use these methods but gradually came to appreciate them.” What they memorized, as part of their conventional schooling, were entire coursebooks (New Concept English by Louis Alexander, in one case) as well as the screenplays of whole films: “Some of them said that when they speak English, lines from movies often naturally pop out, making others think of their English as natural and fluent “. As one of the subjects reported, “through reciting those lessons, he gained mastery of many collocations, phrases, sentence patterns and other language points”.

Now I have to declare an interest here: my conviction that the role of memory – including memorization – in language learning has been sorely neglected led me to commission a title for the Cambridge Handbooks for Language Teachers (of which I’m the series editor), and I’m pleased to say that the book has just been published. It’s by Nick Bilbrough, and called Memory Activities for Language Learning. I have to say that the book has exceeded my expectations, and triumphantly fulfils its back-cover promise: “Memory Activities for Language Learning explores the cognitive processes of memory and provides a bank of activities to facilitate their development”.

I’m hoping that Nick’s book will (re-)awaken interest in the crucial role that memory plays in second language learning.


Carroll, J.B. 1981. Twenty-five years of research in foreign language aptitude. In K.C. Diller (ed.) Individual differences and universals in language learning aptitude. Rowley, MA.; Newbury House.

Ding, Y. 2007. Text memorisation and imitation: The practices of successful Chinese learners of English. System 35: 271-80.

Dörnyei, Z. 2005. The Psychology of the Language Learner: Individual Differences in Second Language Acquisition. Mahwah, N.J.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Dörnyei, Z. 2009. The Psychology of Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

McDonough, S. 2011. Review of Dörnyei (2009) in ELT Journal, 65/2, pp. 194-6.

Skehan, P. 1998. A Cognitive Approach to Language Teaching.Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Illustrations from Hamilton, J. 1946. Método de Inglés (Tercer Libro) Mexico, D.F.: Editorial Progreso.

A is for Attention

22 08 2010

High alert! Classroom in Palestine

Three news stories last week –  all of which dealt with the pervasive role of technology in our lives –  touched on the issue of attention and its role in learning. A front page story in The New York Times reported on a trip into the wilderness undertaken by five academics, the purpose of which, according to psychologist David Strayer, was to study “what happens when we step away from our devices and rest our brains — in particular, how attention, memory, and learning are affected”. Strayer added: “Attention is the holy grail. Everything that you’re conscious of, everything you let in, everything you remember and you forget, depends on it.”

Then there was the publicity associated with a new book, Hamlet’s Blackberry by William Powers, documenting one family’s retreat from an over-reliance on information technology. The book’s blurb reads:

Journalist Powers bemoans the reigning dogma of digital maximalism that requires us to divide our attention between ever more e-mails, text messages, cellphone calls, video streams, and blinking banners, resulting, he argues, in lowered productivity and a distracted life devoid of meaning and depth.

Finally (and more directly relevant to education), The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a move on the part of a handful of teachers to “unplug” their classrooms. One of the teachers was quoted as saying, “Banishing the gear improved the course.  …The students seemed more involved in the discussion than when I allowed them to go online… They were more attentive, and we were able to go into a little more depth.”


While it might be premature to talk about a backlash against so-called ‘ed tech’, there does seem to be a growing awareness as to its limitations, even its risks, especially with regard to its impact on attention.  This is not to deny the enormous benefits that accrue from the use of technological aids outside the classroom – indeed, the capacity of video games, for example, to focus attention, often over a considerable period of time, is well documented, and it’s not impossible to imagine learners (of the right disposition) making exponential gains solely through gaming (assuming the games themselves have been designed to incorporate second language learning opportunities).

Nevertheless, in terms of the quality of classroom life, the proliferation of digitial gadgetry may be having negative consequences on learning, specifically in the way that multiple information channels conspire to divert, disperse or otherwise interfere with, focal attention. We’ve known this ever since the first mobile phone rang in one of our classes.  Nowadays the presence of technology may be less obtrusive, but is no less distracting. As long ago (relatively speaking) as 1998, Linda Stone, formerly of Apple, coined the term ‘continuous partial attention’ (CPA)  to characterise the kind of restless digital flitting that results from the need to stay constantly informed and in touch. Translated to a classroom context, CPA would hardly seem conducive to learning.

Why not? Because – as the psychologist above said – everything that you remember and forget depends on attention. The more dispersed the attention, the less likelihood of remembering, while the more heightened the attention, the better the remembering, and hence the better the learning.  This is as true for language learning as for any other kind of learning.  As psycholinguists Nick Ellis and Peter Robinson put it: “What is attended is learned, and so attention controls the acquisition of language itself” (2008, p. 3). Likewise, Dick Schmidt (2001) argues that only through the exercise of attention is input converted to intake: “Unattended stimuli persist in immediate short-term memory for only a few seconds at best, and attention is the necesary and sufficient condition for long-term memory storage to occur” (p. 16).  The rest is noise.

Indeed, from a cognitivist perspective, teaching might well be defined as the ‘management of attention for pedagogical purposes’. Managing attention means both drawing attention to the subject at hand, and drawing attention away from whatever might be a distraction.  In the case of the latter, this might mean eliminating competing stimuli by shutting down peripheral channels.  In other words, by unplugging the classroom.

Whether or not you’re prepared to go that far, here are some tips for maximising learners’ attention:

  • make sure all heads are up before transitioning to a new stage or activity
  • ensure your own attention is well distributed, and embraces all students equally, including those on the fringes
  • use ‘theatrical’ techniques (e.g. eye-contact, gesture, changes in voice pitch and voice quality) to highlight key lesson content
  • make the learning objectives explicit
  • draw connections across stages, and from one lesson to another
  • use examples from the learners’ own lives, using their names (Juana always takes the bus to school)
  • use the board sparingly and judiciously – too much boardwork obscures the key lesson content
  • drill key items in the lesson – not because this promotes accuracy, or forms good habits, but because it serves to make important lesson content more salient
  • eliminate distractions: ensure books are closed and technological aids are switched off during teacher-focused presentation stages, or when learners are supposed to be interacting face-to-face in pairs/groups
  • negotiate the use of aids and technology, such as dictionaries, laptops, etc, so that learners must ask permission to use them, or use them only at designated stages
  • reduce interference from stimulus overload. e.g. unnecessary visual effects in Powerpoints, background ‘muzak’ during silent reading, etc.
  • encourage (younger) learners to show understanding by nodding affirmatively during teacher-fronted presentation/explanation stages. (This idea comes from the ‘SLANT’ technique developed in a group of US charter schools – kids have to Sit up, Listen, Ask Questions, Nod, and Track the speaker with their eyes).

Notice that I’ve not said anything about maintaining a high activity turnover (so as not to over-tax attention spans, for example) nor about activities having to be fun. This is because an emphasis on activity for activity’s sake may be counterproductive, in that it serves to divert attention onto the activity itself, and not onto the language that mediates the activity.


Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. 2008. An introduction to Cognitive Linguistics, Second Language Acquisition, and Language Instruction. In Ellis, N.C. and Robinson, P. (eds.) Handbook of Cognitive Linguistics and Second Language Acquisition. Oxford: Routledge.

Schmidt, R. 2001. Attention. In Robinson, P. (ed.) Cognition and Second Language Instruction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.