The Relationship between Mastery and Control, and Understanding or Insight

In the execution of a task it is crucial that the persons whose responsibility it is should be competent, i.e. have a command or control that enables them to carry out such a task effectively. In all disciplines of design, such mastery or control is acknowledged to be dependent upon understanding, and this is also the case in the design of language teaching. In acknowledging this, Corder (1972: 21), however, observes that

we cannot wait for an understanding in order to proceed to a mastery and there are examples in other fields where some control over nature has preceded our understanding. Practical tasks cannot wait upon theory, they demand attention here and now .

Now if our insight and understanding are purely and irrevocably theoretical, i.e. always the outcome of theoretical, logically qualified analysis, Corder is of course right. As has been argued above, theoretical, scientific analysis does not, however, necessarily precede our mastery and control of a practical activity such as language teaching. The pedagogical competence of the teacher is a unique, irreducible competence: it does not depend on scientific, or technical-scientific analysis, and this is why it does not “wait upon theory”. But the mastery of a task on the part of a language teacher nonetheless does depend on a practical understanding of the task at hand. Without such (pre-scientific) insight any command of the situation would be practically and factually impossible. It is not so much a case of mastery without understanding, in other words, but the kind of understanding that is crucial to the language teacher’s task.

The task of applied linguistics in this regard is to introduce a detour into the process of gaining mastery and control: the detour of technical-scientific analysis. Language teaching can exist independently without making use of applied linguistic analyses, to be sure, but then it misses the opportunity of being informed by the application of theoretical knowledge that should enrich, in Schuurman’s terms (1972: 362), our insight into and understanding of a unique, concrete situation.

Moreover, the detour proposed by subjecting a practical activity to applied linguistic scrutiny comes as a response to what are perceived as the problematic aspects of such activity. If there is no identifiable problem (as has sometimes erroneously been thought to be the case with first language instruction in the primary and secondary school), no applied linguistic response will be deemed necessary or appropriate. As Carroll (1960), Smolinski (1985) observed much earlier, given any recognized method, enough time, sound instruction, good motivation i and so on, there is no difficulty. But in second or additional language teaching, where motivation may be lacking, instructional groups are often large, and appropriate materials are either hard to find or expensive (as in Eritrea : cf. Habte 2001), the detour of applied linguistic analysis can help. Applied linguistic endeavor, as has been noted above, responds to problems in language teaching and learning that are encountered by disadvantaged individuals. As Carroll (1960) correctly observed: “This is where foreign language teaching most needs scientific help, and even the best known methods in vogue today could doubtless be improved by experimental research.”

Since this kind of applied technical-scientific knowledge anticipates that something practical and effective must be done, it would also, if we ignore its possibilities, leave our control of the teaching situation the poorer. What is more, ignoring the role of applied linguistics in clarifying the existing influence on language teaching of theoretical, linguistic insights (cf. Du Plessis et al. 2013), would leave teachers defenseless against what to them may be unacceptable scientific paradigms , or trends that are misaligned with their own assumptions about teaching.

The latter role of applied linguistics, of preventing the language teacher from falling prey to theory and becoming its victim, has been neglected up to now, specifically as a result of the unquestioned acceptance of the authority of ‘science’ and theoretical insight into the teaching of foreign and additional languages. This aspect needs much more serious attention, also in courses in applied linguistics offered at tertiary institutions. Chomsky’s (1966b: 263) warning in the mid-1960s that the evaluation and validation of theoretical linguistic ideas and proposals for teaching languages must be done by teachers themselves, and not be “passively accepted on grounds of authority”, i.e. simply because they are theoretical, scientific proposals, is still very relevant in applied linguistic thinking. It is an unexpected but welcome reminder of the limits of linguistic and applied linguistic investigation and the expectations we have of these endeavors.

Where, on the one hand, the limits of scientific analyses vis-a-vis language teaching are not respected and, on the other, undue influence is exerted by theorizing on controlling (the content and process of) language teaching, these excesses will, in the course of history, be exposed as such. This unmasking of modernist expectations in the discipline of applied linguistics, so evident in most of what we have surveyed thus far, especially in the interventions it had designed from a tech- nicist basis in its earlier history, can be credited to the current dominance of postmodernist critiques of the discipline. Modernist and postmodernist interpretations of the task of applied linguistics constitute the parting of the ways - the different directions that our designs might take. Before relating the turnabout in applied linguistics from a modernist to a postmodernist perspective (Weideman 2013a) in more detail, however, the effects of an earlier signal of the chasm will be discussed below. In the next chapter we therefore first turn to a review of three different design responses to the limitations of applied linguistic designs, and their consequences in the planning and execution of language teaching .

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