Building and Rebuilding

I’ve blogged already about how ESOL is different from other subjects taught in colleges in the UK, and something that someone said to me on twitter got me thinking: “are we just awkward, or is ESOL different??”

My answer was “yes to both. We are teaching the medium of instruction” and this bounced me off into other thoughts. Like how, cognitively, language learning is significantly different to, say, learning political history or how to fix an engine, and it came to me that this was encapsulated in one word: interlanguage.

Before we go into interlanguage, however, i’d like to briefly summarise what I think of as one of the dominant models and metaphors of general learning, which is social constructivism, or, if you prefer, a brick wall with bits missing. The brick wall is the current knowledge (which may be minor, and which may be extensive) and the gaps are the things to be learned. In this model, the teachers’s role is to help the learner identify those gaps and put things into place to help plug those gaps. Learners do this well when they learn from each other: their different walls may have different holes in them, and so they could help each other to fill those holes, constructing the learning through social interaction. In such an environment, the teacher is not just a holder and dispenser of knowledge but is also a learner themselves.

So far so good. I hope we are all happy with that. I’m not going to go into the “filling the empty vessel” idea of learning, simply because I don’t think it has any value. We all know something about something. As a test, think of something you think you know nothing about (for example, the political history of Fiji). Look it up on wikipedia and you would be surprised what you already know. If there is a subject which you truly think you know nothing about, you can always make assumptions, based on parallels with other knowledge: language learning is a good example here: I know nothing of Vietnamese, for example, but I can recognise it as a language when I hear it, and I have a good knowledge of another language (English) which I can use to draw conclusions about how Vietnamese works.

Which, rather neatly, brings to the concept of interlanguage. Interlanguage, I think I may have written before, is a complete system of language that a learner produces at any point on a learning continuum from having no target language to have full control of the target language. It’s formed up partly of the learner’s first language, partly of some inaccurate assumptions about the target language and partly of some accurate use of the target language. So a learner who has yet to grasp the negative properly says “I no like chips.” The use of “no” as a negative marker here is often, at this point, consistent across that learners’ language use: the learner has come up with a rule of their own to plug the gap of “how to say a negative” while on the way to learning the rest.

So when trying to communicate in English, a beginner Punjabi speaker uses resources from their limited English (mainly vocabulary) and guesses how the rules of English work based on their lessons, and on the grammar of Punjabi. There are gaps in the understanding, but rather than being empty gaps, as would be the (extensive) case for my knowledge of, say, car engines, these are filled by ideas from other sources, such as first language, or extrapolation from other learned rules of English.

The traditional depiction of interlanguage is that of a series of overlapping circles on a continuum representing a sequence of complete language systems which develop from a first language to a second language system, based on input of, and exposure to, the second language.

The difference, then, between these two concepts is that the “holes in the wall” concept of knowledge and learning places is basically a deficit model. The object of teaching and learning is to identify what is missing, plug the gaps, build new walls, and so on. For a language teacher, we are not plugging any gaps at all, as there are no gaps to plug. Instead we have to make new bricks to replace the current set of bricks, replace or repoint the mortar: in short, rebuild the wall again and again with a new set of systems and rules.

How can we make use of interlanguage theory in our teaching? Interlanguage can influence classroom behaviour through the reformulation of learner language: using a task based learning type model, where learners try to do something, review and reformulate their language and then try again. Here, the actual language to be generated is not always predictable: you might, based on the evidence to date, be expecting the learners to make mistakes with past simple, but what actually happens is they make more significant mistakes with comparatives. So your carefully planned lesson on past simple is now redundant, and you have to either run out of the class to assemble a new set of resources, or simply roll with the punches and devise activities for the learners in the moment. Indeed, rather than spending our time planning and predicting how successful learners are going to be, demeaning and reducing the complexity of their language skills to a handful of predictable outcomes, we might, perhaps, be better off spending our time developing a base of strategies and techniques to put into play as soon as we need them: responding to learner need in and of the moment.

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