In an earlier post I wrote, “The best analogy of a historian’s brain I have heard is of it being like a dung heap and, if you leave it long enough it is likely something will grow.”(1) Most of the historians I have read have only reinforced my conviction that there is an innate truth in this little analogy and it comes, therefore, as no surprise that despite a post-graduate degree from the London School of Economics in International History, I have become a bit of a failed historian. The evidence would now seem to suggest that, despite my talent for languages, I am on my way to becoming a failed linguist. Although, that can be no bad thing and it would appear that the majority of linguists don’t know very much about languages.
Preparing for an exam I decided to have a little look at current psychological theories regarding language learning or, to be more appropriate, language acquisition and there I was reading this fine brain which maintains that in order to learn a language we have to “pay attention”, the fine brain then called it “information processing” and we shouldn’t confuse this with “connectionism” which asserts that it is the “frequency with which we learners encounter the specific linguistic features in the input and the frequency with which the features occur together”. Anyway, I went through this drivel almost systematically and moved on to encounter such mind bending theories as “conversational interaction is essential”, very profound, indeed, “conversational interaction is essential” to learning a language, as is paying attention and hearing things over and over again and so I drifted through “the noticing hypothesis”, that is correct, that ground breaking hypothesis that says you have got to notice language items, and ….. well, that brings me to the point.
Back at university those wooly thinking historians at least did provide me with some sort of tenuous thesis and anti-thesis before moving onto their gobblydegook hypothesis. However, it is to the linguists that we should look if we want to confront ourselves with the hypothesis as an oxymoron. There they are producing almost banal common sense statements such as “you have to pay attention if you want to learn a language”, which they couch in verbose pseudo scientific language. However, that is actually as good as it gets, and when the statements don’t even make sense we find some wonderfully strange, rivetingly banal, “hypothesis” where there has been no real empirical research. The evidence would appear to suggest that the linguists, with their “Universal Grammars”, “Monitoring Models”, “Connectionism” etc etc, have moved to the very top of the wolly thinkers’ dung heap.
2 Patsy M.Lightbown, Nina Spada, ‘How Languages are Learned’ pp38-49, OUP, 2006
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