E is for Emergence

23 07 2017

path.JPG“Out of the slimy mud of words … there spring[s] the perfect order of speech” (T.S. Eliot).

Eliot’s use of the verb ‘spring’ suggests that language emerges instantly and fully-formed, like a rabbit out of a hat. Historical linguists, sociolinguists and researchers into language acquisition (both first and second) suggest that the processes of language evolution and development are slower – and messier. To capture this messy, evolving quality, many scholars enlist the term emergence.

In what sense (or senses), then, does language emerge? There are at least three dimensions along which language, and specifically grammar, can be said to be emergent: over historical time; in the course of an individual’s lifetime; and in the moment-to-moment interactions in the language classroom.

Languages emerge over time. Pidgins, for example, emerge out of the contact between people with mutually unintelligible mother tongues. Creoles emerge when these pidgins are acquired as a first language by children in pidgin-speaking communities. English itself is the product of creolizing processes, as speakers of different local dialects came into contact with each other and with successive waves of invaders.  There are some that argue that ELF – English as a lingua franca – is yet another instance of an emergent variety.

Because, of course, English continues to evolve. The emergence of the future marker ‘going to’ is a case in point: in Shakespeare’s day, if you were to ‘going to meet someone’ you were literally moving in the direction of the projected meeting place. Over the course of a century or so, ‘going to’ became a metaphorical way of expressing a future intention. By the twentieth century it had further metamorphosed into the contracted form ‘gonna’. Such changes do not happen overnight nor are they ordained by some higher authority or by some genetic disposition. Arguably, everything we call grammar has emerged through similar processes, whereby lexical words become ‘grammaticalized’ to perform certain needed functions, and then, through repeated use, become established in a speech community. According to this view, ‘grammar is seen as … the set of sedimented conventions that have been routinized out of the more frequently occurring ways of saying things’ (Hopper 1998: 163).

Language emerges, too, in the course of an individual’s lifetime, primarily their infancy, as argued by proponents of usage-based theories of language acquisition – those theories that propose that linguistic competence is the product of an individual’s innumerable experiences of language in use.  As Nick Ellis (1998, p. 657) puts it:

Emergentists believe that simple learning mechanisms, operating in and across the human systems for perception, motor-action and cognition as they are exposed to language data as part of a communicatively-rich human social environment by an organism eager to exploit the functionality of language, suffice to drive the emergence of complex language representations.

path 01.JPGThese ‘rule abstraction’ processes have been modelled using connectionist networks, i.e. computerized simulations of the way neural pathways are sensitive to frequency information and are strengthened accordingly, to the point that they display rule-like learning behaviours – even when they have no prior grammatical knowledge (Ellis et al. 2016).

In other words, the system continuously upgrades itself using general  (rather than language-specific) learning faculties, a view that challenges ‘innatist’ theories of language acquisition, as argued by – among others – Steven Pinker in The language instinct (1994).

From a complex systems perspective, the emergent nature of language learning is consistent with the view that, as John Holland (1998, p. 3) puts it: ‘a small number of rules or laws can generate systems of surprising complexity,’ a capacity that is ‘compounded when the elements of the system include some capacity, however elementary, for adaptation or learning’ (p. 5). While humans have this capacity, they are also constrained in terms of how information (in the form of language) can be processed in real time, and these constraints explain why languages share common features (so-called language universals) which, as Christiansen and Chater (2016) argue, are simply tendencies, ‘rather than the rigid categories of [Universal Grammar]’ (p.87).

Finally, language emerges in second language learning situations, especially when learners are engaged in communicative interaction. The learner talks; others respond. It is the scaffolding and recasting, along with the subsequent review, of these learner-initiated episodes that drives acquisition, argue proponents of task-based instruction, with which Dogme ELT is, of course, aligned. ‘In other words, the emphasis shifts from the traditional interventionist, proactive, modelling behaviour of synthetic approaches to a more reactive mode for teachers – students lead, the teacher follows’ (Long, 2015, p. 70). Or, as Michael Breen (1985) so memorably put it: ‘The language I learn in the classroom is a communal product derived through a jointly constructed process.’

A recent book that attempts to unify the different dimensions of emergence – the historical, the biographical and the moment-by-moment – enlists a felicitous metaphor:path 02

 ‘The quasi-regular structure of language arises in rather the same way that a partially regular pattern of tracks comes to be laid down through a forest, through the overlaid traces of endless animals finding the path of local least resistance; and where each language processing episode tends to facilitate future, similar, processing episodes, just as an animal’s choice of a path facilitates the use of that path for animals that follow’ (Christiansen & Chater, 2016, p. 132.)

Is teaching, then, simply a matter of guiding the learners to find the tracks laid down by their predecessors?

References

Breen, M. (1985). The social context for language learning – a neglected situation? Studies in Second Language Acquisition, 7.

Christiansen, M.H. & Chater, N. (2016) Creating language: integrating evolution, acquisition and processing. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press.

Ellis, N. (1998) Emergentism, connectionism and language learning. Language Learning, 48/4.

Ellis, N., Römer, U. & O’Donell, M.B. (2016) Usage-based approaches to language acquisition and processing: Cognitive and corpus investigations of construction grammar. Oxford: Wiley.

Holland, J. H. (1998) Emergence: From chaos to order. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hopper, P.J. (1998) ‘Emergent language’ in M. Tomasello, (ed.) The New Psychology of Language: Cognitive and Functional Approaches to Language Structure. Mahwah, NJ.: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Long, M. (2014) Second language acquisition and task-based language teaching. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell.





M is for Manifesto

25 06 2017

Blanchett as teacherIf you get a chance to see Julian Rosefeldt’s movie Manifesto, starring Cate Blanchett, do – if for no other reason than to see Blanchett at the top of her form, playing 13 different roles and as many accents, to often hilarious effect. (You can see the trailer here).

Originally conceived as an art gallery video installation, it has now been spliced together as an art-house movie. Each of its thirteen segments has Blanchett reciting and/or enacting a manifesto, or a cluster of related manifestos, that launched various 20th century art movements: Dadaism, Futurism, the Situationists, Surrealism, etc. The Pop Art manifesto, for example takes the form of Blanchett, with a broad Southern accent, saying grace in advance of a turkey dinner, while her long-suffering family roll their eyes at each successively outrageous pronouncement, taken verbatim from Claes Oldenberg’s 1961 text ‘I am for an art…’: “I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum….I am for the art of punching and skinned knees and sat-on bananas. I am for the art of kids’ smells. I am for the art of mama-babble…’ and so on. And on.

But my favorite sequence has to be the one near the end, about film, in which Blanchett plays a primary school teacher with a pitch-perfect ‘teacherly’ voice, talking her class through the Dogme 1995 manifesto. Hovering over the kids as they complete an assignment, she gently corrects one of them: “Shooting must be done on location.” And another: “The camera must be handheld.”

dogme95The Dogme 1995 film manifesto, apparently drafted over a bottle of red wine by Lars Von Trier and a handful of his Scandinavian film-making buddies, was, of course, the stimulus for the Dogme ELT manifesto.  The scene in Manifesto prompted me to revisit both. Here, for the record, are four of the 10 ‘vows’ that adherents to the Dogme film movement were expected to comply with:

1.Shooting must be done on location. Props and sets must not be brought in (if a particular prop is necessary for the story, a location must be chosen where this prop is to be found).

2.The sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa. (Music must not be used unless it occurs where the scene is being shot). […]

7.Temporal and geographical alienation are forbidden. (That is to say that the film takes place here and now.) […]

10. The director must not be credited.

Motivated by a similar desire to ‘rescue’ teaching from the clutches of the grammar syllabus, as enshrined in coursebooks, and all the associated pedagogical paraphernalia that goes with it, I drafted an (intentionally provocative) Dogme ELT manifesto which clearly echoes both the style and spirit of the van Trier one, and takes the form of ten ‘vows’ (Thornbury 2001):

  1. Teaching should be done using only the resources that teachers and students bring to the classroom – i.e. themselves – and whatever happens to be in the classroom. If a particular piece of material is necessary for the lesson, a location must be chosen where that material is to be found (e.g. library, resource centre, bar, students’ club?)

  2. No recorded listening material should be introduced into the classroom: the source of all “listening” activities should be the students and teacher themselves. The only recorded material that is used should be that made in the classroom itself, e.g. recording students in pair or group work for later re-play and analysis.

  3. The teacher must sit down at all times that the students are seated, except when monitoring group or pair work (and even then it may be best to pull up a chair). In small classes, teaching should take place around a single table.

  4. All the teacher’s questions must be “real” questions (such as “Do you like oysters?” Or “What did you do on Saturday?”), not “display” questions (such as “What’s the past of the verb to go?” or “Is there a clock on the wall?”)

  5. Slavish adherence to a method (such as audiolingualism, Silent Way, TPR, task-based learning, suggestopedia) is unacceptable.

  6. A pre-planned syllabus of pre-selected and graded grammar items is forbidden. Any grammar that is the focus of instruction should emerge from the lesson content, not dictate it.

  7. Topics that are generated by the students themselves must be given priority over any other input.

  8. Grading of students into different levels is disallowed: students should be free to join the class that they feel most comfortable in, whether for social reasons, or for reasons of mutual intelligibility, or both. As in other forms of human social interaction, diversity should be accommodated, even welcomed, but not proscribed.

  9. The criteria and administration of any testing procedures must be negotiated with the learners.

  10. Teachers themselves will be evaluated according to only one criterion: that they are not boring.

Re-reading it now, I realise how it was influenced (a) by the specific training context in which I was working, where elicitation sequences and the playing of barely audible cassette recordings were the order of the day, and (b) by my reading of Postman and Weingartner’s radical treatise, Teaching as a Subversive Activity (1967) which similarly called for a moratorium on mandated curricula and formal testing. I still hold by that, but the final vow (about not being boring) is just plain silly.dogme_circle

The key vow is, of course, the first one, and its proscription on ‘imported’ materials. While the idea of taking students to the bar or library is clearly impractical, technology now allows us to bring the bar or library into the classroom, thereby realising Peter Strevens’ (1956) injunction that:

“Language is not a sterile subject to be confined to the classroom. One of two things must be done: either life must be brought to the classroom or the class must be taken to life.”

Does anything else in the Dogme ELT manifesto strike you as worth retaining?

References

Postman, N. & Weingartner, C. (1967) Teaching as a subversive activity. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Strevens, P. (1956) Spoken language: an introduction for teachers and students in Africa. London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Thornbury, S. (2001) ‘Teaching Unplugged (Or That’s Dogme with an E)’. IT’s for Teachers, Issue 1 (February), 10-14.

 

 





S is for Sylvia (Ashton-Warner)

18 06 2017

Sylvia Ashton-Warner‘I harness the communication, since I can’t control it, and base my method on it’ (Ashton-Warner, 1966, p.85).

Sylvia Ashton-Warner (1908 – 1984) was a primary school teacher in rural New Zealand, where she was entrusted with teaching reading and writing, using textbooks that were imported from Britain. The content of these ‘primers’ bore little resemblance to the world of her pupils (most of whom were of Māori origin). Their inability to identify with the textbooks and their consequent failure to develop good literacy skills was a constant source of frustration for Ashton-Warner. She wrote (cited in Hood, 1990, p. 91):

There’s no communication … you see they’re not thinking about what they’re writing about or what I’m teaching. I’m teaching about ‘bed’ and ‘can’ but they were thinking about canoes and grandfathers and drowned men and eels.

This frustration led to her abandoning the use of the imported textbooks altogether and, instead, developing an approach – and the materials to go with it – that ‘emerged’ out of the lives and experiences of the children themselves.

In her successful novel, Spinster (1958, p. 67) she describes the germination of this idea:

A rainy, rainy Thursday and I talk to them all day. They ask ten thousand questions in the morning and eleven thousand in the afternoon. And more and more as I talk with them I sense hidden in the converse some kind of key. A kind of high-above nebulous meaning that I cannot identify. And the more I withdraw as a teacher and sit and talk as a person, the more I join in with the stream of their energy, the direction of their inclinations, the rhythms of their emotions, and the forces of their communications, the more I feel my thinking travelling towards this; this something that is the answer to it all; this . . . key.

Conscious that each child had a unique inner imagery, she reasoned that if she could just capture and label these ‘pictures of the inner vision’, she had all the material she needed to provide the foundations of literacy – what she called the ‘key vocabulary’. These were the words that, once written down and recognized, would unlock the ability to read and write texts that included them. These first words, she believed, ‘must have an intense meaning’ and ‘must be made of the stuff of the child himself’ (1966, p. 28).

kids with cards cropBecause the words that emerged from the children provided the basis for their initial writing and reading tasks, she called the approach to literacy ‘organic’ – it grew naturally out of the ‘stuff of the child’: ‘I reach a hand into the mind of the child, bring out a handful of the stuff I find there, and use that as our first working material’ (1966, p. 28).

How did it work? The first stage in Ashton-Warner’s ‘key vocabulary’ process is the eliciting from each child of a ‘key’ word, i.e. one that has strong associations for them, and writing it on a card which the child takes ownership of.

After play … we turn our attention to the new words themselves. The children pick up their books and run to the blackboard and write them up: the words asked for during the writing of the morning. They’re not too long ago to be forgotten.  Some of them are, when a child has asked a lot, but they ask you what they are.

Since they are all on the wall blackboard, I can see them from one position. They write them, revise them, the older children spell them and the younger merely say them… Of course, there’s a lot of noise, but there’s a lot of work too. (p.63)

girl at boardThese words then become the basis of sentences that the children individually write on the blackboards that ring the room. These sentences in turn form the basis of mini-narratives, usually autobiographical, that the pupils write into their notebooks and share, the teacher supplying correction at the point of need. Ashton-Warner used these texts as the basis for writing her ‘infant readers’ which she herself illustrated. Out of this ‘raw material’ – and with no explicit teaching as such – the ability to read and write develops.

In  her life-time and beyond, Sylvia achieved a considerable degree of fame, not only as an educational innovator but as a novelist and counter-cultural icon. For a while she was revered by the progressive schools movement and her methods were adopted beyond her native New Zealand (where her capacity to irritate even her supporters, along with her tendency to stereotype the Māori, badly dented her reputation). As with many visionary educators, her fame may have owed a lot to her own charisma, but those who were taught by her attest to the success of her approach.

One way her legacy has survived is the Language Experience Approach (LEA), a literacy program used with success in the US and based on the principle that the best way of teaching children to read is through their own words. Essentially, the teacher transcribes the telling of a shared experience (e.g. a field trip) or an individual’s narrative, recasting it into more target-like language were necessary. The class then read the story aloud, either in chorus, or individually, and any further revisions and corrections are made. These stories can then be saved as part of the class reading library and even shared with other groups of learners.

And, of course, Ashton-Warner’s organic, materials-light approach is a direct precursor of dogme ELT/teaching-unplugged. In both her teaching journal and her novel she describes the day she burnt all her classroom materials: ‘It’s impressive to see it go up in smoke. … But teaching will be much simpler now, and there’ll be more time for conversation. And whatever the past has or has not taught me, I’m satisfied that communication on any level, giving birth as it does to the new body, the new idea or the new heart, is the most that life can be’ (Spinster, p p.86 – 87).

kids at desks

References

Ashton-Warner, S. (1966) Teacher. Harmondsworth: Penguin.
Ashton-Warner, S. (1958) Spinster. London: Secker & Warburg.
Hood, L. (1990) Sylvia! The biography of Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Auckland: Penguin.

Photos from Teacher.





S is for Speaking (2)

7 05 2017

 

setting up speaking activity

photo by Ahed Izhiman

Following on from last week, here are five more of my favourite speaking activities that I included (or planned to include) in my talks in Palestine. As in the last batch, they require minimal materials, promote a good deal of productive language use, and have elements of task rehearsal and repetition built in.

 

Find someone who… This is a classic and hardly needs describing, but there are some interesting variations. It involves learners walking around (space permitting), asking all the other learners questions with a view to completing a survey or finding someone whose answers most closely match theirs. For example, in order to find out how adventurous the class is, learners (either singly or in small groups) first prepare three or four questions that fit this frame:

Have you ever …?  Would you ever…?

For example, Have you ever been sailing? (And, if the answer is No) Would you ever do it? Have you ever eaten insects? Would you ever eat them?) etc. They then survey the rest of the class, making a note of the number of affirmative answers. This will involve the repeated asking of the question(s), but in a context that requires that learners pay attention, not only to asking the right questions, but also to the answers. It is this requirement, the enforced re-allocation of attentional resources, that – in theory – encourages memorization of the forms. Reporting to the class the results of the milling activity (e.g. Maxim said he would never dive off the high board; Olga said …) is also another way of providing repetitive practice where attention is not only on meaning, but, because of the public nature of the reporting, also on form – i.e. on getting it right. Variants involve choosing items from a grid – e.g. holiday destinations, hotels, and months – and asking questions in order to find someone who is going to the same destination, staying in the same hotel, and in the same month.

Show and tell. Another classic: in successive lessons, learners take turns to make a short (two to five-minute) presentation to the rest of the class, e.g. about an interest they have, a hobby, a favourite object, a book they have read or movie they have seen. It is important than the presentation is spoken – not simply written down and read aloud. This requirement, along with the public nature of the task, encourages preparation and rehearsal. A question-and-answer session at the end ensures spontaneous language use. Ideally, learners should have a chance to repeat the presentation, either immediately or at a later date, in order to incorporate any feedback. An alternative organization is to put the students into small groups to share their ‘news’, while the teacher circulates and assists. One person from each group then reports some of the more interesting findings to the class. This is a great way to begin a lesson, and, if done regularly, trains learners to prepare in advance.

Discussion cards. Students in small groups have a set of statements or questions about a specific topic on cards. These can be prepared by the teacher, but, better still, by the students themselves, whose discussion cards can then be exchanged with another group. One student takes the first card, reads it aloud, and the group then discuss it for as long as they need, before taking the next card, and so on. If a particular statement doesn’t interest them, they can move on to the next one. The object is not necessarily to discuss all the statements: the teacher should decide at what point to end the activity. Groups who have finished early can prepare a summary of the main points that have come up. These summaries can be used to open up the discussion to the whole class.

Describe-and-draw race. The teacher pre-teaches or revises nouns relating to geometrical shapes, such as line, square, circle, triangle, and rectangle, as well as prepositional phrases such as on the left, on the right, above, below, outside, inside, so that learners can describe a simple arrangement of shapes. (Alternatively, they could be easy-to-draw objects, such as fruit, items of clothing or of furniture).

To practise, the teacher describes an arrangement so that the learners can draw it correctly. The learners do the same to each other in pairs, and/or ‘dictate’ a picture to the teacher.

communicative activity

photo by Tamar Hazam

 

Now the game element is introduced. The class is divided into two teams, and the blackboard is divided in two by a line down the middle. Each team has a representative at the board, each with a piece of chalk, or boardmarker. In advance of the game the teacher should have prepared a dozen or so different designs incorporating the geometrical shapes, large enough to be seen by all the class. The teacher ensures that the two team representatives at the board can’t see the designs, and then selects one and shows it to the two teams. Each team attempts to describe the design to its representative at the board, and the first team to do this successfully, so that the design is replicated on the board, is the winner of that round. The teacher then selects another design and the game continues, with new ‘drawers’ at the board.

Paper conversations. Not strictly a speaking activity, but one that simulates the real-time and non-predictable nature of spoken interaction, and therefore is useful preparation for it. Learners have a ‘conversation’ with their classmates, but instead of speaking, they write the conversation onto a shared sheet of paper. While the students are writing, the teacher can monitor their written ‘conversations’ and make corrections or improvements more easily than when students are actually speaking. The conversations can then be read aloud, using the ‘heads up’ procedure described in the previous post.

All these activities, and more, can be found in my book How to Teach Speaking (Pearson 2005).

 

 

 





I is for Innovation

9 05 2015

This is a dress rehearsal of my opening ‘mini-plenary’ for the hugely successful ELT Innovate conference, held this weekend in Barcelona  – on the subject, unsurprisingly – of innovation.

These are the books and articles I refer to:

Postman, N., & Weingartner, C. (1969) Teaching as a subversive activity. Penguin Education.

Selwyn, N. (2011) Education and Technology: Key Issues and Debates, London: Continuum.

Selwyn, N. (2013) Distrusting Educational Technology: Critical Questions for Changing Times. London: Routledge.

Selwyn, N. (2015) ‘Minding our language: Why education and technology is full of bullshit … and what might be done about it’, paper given to the ‘Digital Innovation, creativity and knowledge in education’ conference, Qatar, January 2015.





F is for Forty years on

29 03 2015
IH Shaftesbury Avenue - where it all started

IH Shaftesbury Avenue – where it all started

It came as a slight shock today to realize that I started my career in TEFL forty years ago last month. So, forgive the somewhat indulgently autobiographical nature of this post.

February 1975: newly arrived in London and eager to return to Greece under whose spell I had fallen en route from the dominions, I enrolled in a four-week course at IH London — in those days housed in its quaintly labyrinthine headquarters in Soho. It cost £65 – probably the best £65 I ever spent.

I was instantly captivated by the ‘IH method’, a Direct Method derivative, where ‘grammar points’ were presented using ingeniously contrived situations, and vocabulary was taught through mime, realia, visual aids – anything, of course, but translation. The fact that we were plunged into teaching practice from day one made perfect sense, but ratcheted up the intensity of the experience to a degree that might have been insupportable had I not had a background in children’s theatre.

The Monday after the course finished I was already teaching – at the International House affiliate in Hastings. I still cringe when I remember some of those first lessons: presenting countable and uncountable nouns using a painstakingly assembled bag of groceries, drilling the present simple instead of the present continuous to narrate a picture story, being challenged (and failing) to explain the grammar of ‘I wish’ to a group of insolent Iranian naval cadets, walking my class through Hastings old town in order to reinforce the learning of those same countable and uncountable nouns…

Hastings 1975 - writing my application for a job in Cairo

Hastings 1975 – writing my application for a job in Cairo

Four months on, with my visa due to expire, I applied to join the teaching staff of a new IH affiliate in Cairo. I’d wanted to go to Greece, but Egypt seemed close enough. My original teacher trainer, who happened to be in Hastings at the time, urged me on: ‘It’s a new school and expanding rapidly. Stick it out and in a year’s time you’ll be assistant Director of Studies. And then … who knows?’

Which is more or less what happened.

So, looking back, what has happened to TEFL in those forty years?

Only a year into teaching and the first waves of the communicative approach started breaking on the methodological shore. I’ve written about that elsewhere, so I won’t say more now, except that its advent was perfectly timed to provide a humane alternative to the ‘drill-and-repeat’ methodology I had been trained in and which, I have to say, I had perfected to the point that my classes had an almost military rigour.

This trend was reinforced by serendipitously coming across a book by Earl Stevick, which – like Chapman’s Homer – opened my eyes to a whole new way of thinking about teaching – in fact, not thinking about teaching at all, but about learning.

This undercurrent of early CLT and humanistic principles permeated my subsequent teacher training career at IH Barcelona, reinforced by my reading on task-based instruction, along with a heavy dose of Krashen – all of which bubbled to the surface as Dogme ELT (aka Teaching Unplugged) – a rearguard action to salvage communicative principles in the face of a grammar-driven materials tsunami.

By now I was starting to go to conferences, where my thinking was further moulded by luminaries too numerous to mention. The first major conference I dared to speak at myself was at IATEFL in, uniquely, Lille, France – on the subject of reflection, which had been the focus of my MA dissertation at the University of Reading.

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

Teacher training, IH Barcelona 1986

It was at one of these early conferences that I was approached and invited to submit a proposal for a book of language awareness tasks, which became About Language – now in the process of being re-written for its long overdue second edition. The rest is not exactly history, but it is of perhaps less consequence in terms of my overall development.

So, what is different in TEFL now compared to 1975? For a start, the very notion of EFL itself has succumbed to the complexity and diversity of globalized English, where the distinctions between English as a foreign, or second, or international language are blurring to the point of illegibility.

And those who confidently and even imperiously ‘owned’ EFL in those days – the (mainly white) inner circle native speakers like myself – are slowly relinquishing their authority to the majority outer and expanding circle non-natives – although not without a struggle. And, of course, technology has radically changed the way that language is used and learned – although its benefits for teaching, and its unintended consequences, have yet to be fully understood.

But that’s enough of me. What’s changed since you started teaching?





I is for Intersubjectivity

22 03 2015

edmund whiteIf I had to reduce language learning to the bare essentials and then construct a methodology around those essentials, it might look something like this (from Edmund White’s autobiographical novel The Farewell Symphony):

“[Lucrezia’s] teaching method was clever. She invited me to gossip away in Italian as best I could, discussing what I would ordinarily discuss in English; when stumped for the next expression, I’d pause. She’d then provide the missing word. I’d write it down in a notebook I kept week after week. … Day after day I trekked to Lucrezia’s and she tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.”

Whatever theoretical lens you view this through, Lucrezia’s ‘method’ contains the right mix. Those who subscribe to the ‘learning-is-information-processing’ view will approve of the output + feedback cycle and the covert focus on form. Those of a sociocultural bent will applaud Lucrezia’s scaffolding of learning affordances at the point of need. Dynamic systems theorists will invoke ‘the soft-assembly of language resources in a coupled system’. What’s more, my own recent experience of trying to re-animate my moribund Spanish suggests that the single most effective learning strategy was ‘instructional conversation’ with a friend in a bar. That is to say, the same kind of ‘clever method’ that White celebrates above.

But, of course, unless you have a willing partner, such intensive one-to-one treatment is costly and not always available. Could this kind of conversation-based mediation be engineered digitally? Is there an app for it?

alan turingInteractive software that replicates human conversation has long been a dream of researchers ever since Alan Turing proposed the ‘Turing Test’ in the 1950s, which challenged programmers to design a machine that could outwit a jury into thinking that they were interacting with a real person.

While no one has yet met Turing’s conditions in any convincing way, programs such as ‘chatterbots’ have certainly managed to fool some of the people some of the time. Could they substitute for a real interlocutor, in the way, say, that a computer can substitute for a chess player?

It’s unlikely. Conversation, unlike chess, is not constrained by a finite number of moves. Even the most sophisticated program based on ‘big data’, i.e. one that could scan a corpus of millions or even billions of conversations, and then select its responses accordingly, would still be a simulation. Crucially, what the program would lack is the capacity to ‘get into the mind’ of its conversational partner and intuit his or her intentions. In a word, it would lack intersubjectivity.

Intersubjectivity is ‘the sharing of experiential content (e.g., feelings, perceptions, thoughts, and linguistic meanings) among a plurality of subjects’ (Zlatev et al 2008, p.1). It appears to be a uniquely human faculty. Indeed, some researchers go so far as to claim that ‘the human mind is quintessentially a shared mind and that intersubjectivity is at the heart of what makes us human’ (op.cit. p. 2). Play, collaborative work, conversation and teaching are all dependent on this capacity to ‘know what the other person is thinking’. Lucrezia’s ability to second-guess White’s communicative needs is a consequence of their ‘shared mind’.

It is intersubjectivity that enables effective teachers to pitch their instructional interventions at just the right level, and at the right moment. Indeed, Vygotsky’s notion of the ‘zone of proximal development’ (ZPD) is premised on the notion of intersubjectivity. As van Lier (1996, p. 191) observes:

‘How do we, as caretakers or educators, ensure that our teaching actions are located in the ZPD, especially if we do not really have any precise idea of the innate timetable of every learner? In answer to this question, researchers in the Vygotskian mould propose that social interaction, by virtue of its orientation towards mutual engagement and intersubjectivity, is likely to home in on the ZPD and stay with it.’

alexander hide and seek01Intersubjectivity develops at a very early age – even before the development of language – as a consequence of joint attention on collaborative tasks and routines. Pointing, touching, gaze, and body alignment all contribute to this sharing of attention that is a prerequisite for the emergence of intersubjectivity.

In this sense, intersubjectivity is both situated and embodied: ‘Intersubjectivity is achieved on the basis of how participants orient to one another and to the here-and-now context of an interaction’ (Kramsch 2009, p. 19). Even in adulthood we are acutely sensitive to the ‘body language’ of our conversational partners: ‘A conversation consists of an elaborate sequence of actions – speaking, gesturing, maintaining the correct body language – which conversants must carefully select and time with respect to one another’ (Richardson, et al. 2008, p. 77). And teaching, arguably, is more effective when it is supported by gesture, eye contact and physical alignment. Sime (2008, p. 274), for example, has observed how teachers’ ‘nonverbal behaviours’ frame classroom interactions, whereby ‘a developed sense of intersubjectivity seems to exist, where both learners and teacher share a common set of gestural meanings that are regularly deployed during interaction’.alexander hide and seek02

So, could a computer program replicate (as opposed to simulate) the intersubjectivity that underpins Lucrezia’s method? It seems unlikely. For a start, no amount of data can configure a computer to imagine what it would be like to experience the world from my point of view, with my body and my mind.

Moreover, the disembodied nature of computer-mediated instruction would hardly seem conducive to the ‘situatedness’ that is a condition for intersubjectivity. As Kramsch observes, ‘Teaching the multilingual subject means teaching language as a living form, experienced and remembered bodily’ (2009, p. 191). It is not accidental, I would suggest, that White enlists a very physical metaphor to capture the essence of Lucrezia’s method: ‘She tore out the seams of my shoddy, ill-fitting Italian and found ways to tailor it to my needs and interests.’

There is no app for that.

alexander hide and seek03References

Kramsch, C. 2009. The multilingual subject. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Richardson, D.C., Dale, R. & Shockley, K. 2008. ‘Synchrony and swing in conversation: coordination, temporal dynamics, and communication’, in Wachsmuth, I., Lenzen, M. & Knoblich, G. (eds) Embodied communication in humans and machines, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sime, D. 2008. ‘”Because of her gesture, it’s very easy to understand” – Learners’ perceptions of teachers’ gestures in the foreign language class.’ In McCafferty, S.G. & Stam, G. (eds) Gesture: Second language acquisition and classroom research. London: Routledge.

Van Lier, L. 1996. Interaction in the language curriculum: Awareness, autonomy & authenticity. Harlow: Longman.

White, E. 1997. The farewell symphony. London: Chatto & Windus.

Zlatev, J., Racine, T.P., Sinha, C., & Itkonen, E. (eds) 2008. The shared mind: Perspectives on intersubjectivity. Amsterdam: John Benjamins.

Illustrations from Alexander, L.G. 1968. Look, listen, learn! London: Longman.

 A version of this post first appeared on the ELTjam blog in November 2014.