A Linguistic and Behaviorist Start

The first tradition within applied linguistics, that marks the start of its recognition as a modern style of accomplishing the design of language teaching and language assessment was, as we have noted, characterized by a linguistic orientation, as well as by behaviorism. This beginning derived specifically from the contribution by American theoretical linguists to the war effort, a development that took place late in the Second World War, and after the USA had openly joined the Allied forces. Since much of the initial American military thrust was aimed at the Pacific, the languages of that region that needed to be learned by American servicemen were the ones that were most in demand. Post-1940 foreign language instruction designed in this mold relied on certain theoretical ‘principles’ (Moulton 1962; Smolinski 1985). These principles were believed, as we have seen, to be supported by theoretical linguistic and psychological insight. Backed by this belief, proponents of the kind of language teaching known as the audio-lingual method thought that they could validate their teaching techniques.

Being descriptive structuralists in orientation, the starting point of these linguists was their intimate knowledge of the structure of the indigenous native American languages, discovered and recorded through meticulous fieldwork. As we have noted, their design of audio-lingual courses marks not only the beginning of applied linguistics, but also the expectation that science and theory could authoritatively prescribe effective intervention designs. The Skinnerian stimulus-response techniques that accompanied the use of the method in the language laboratories of the 1960s will be vividly remembered by those who were involved in delivering courses made according to these designs.

As regards the language being taught, the structuralist orientation that characterized this design style led to the uncritical acceptance of the theoretical assumption that, in the same way that linguists structurally dissect language, the designers of language instruction need to break language up into small units. Whether units of analysis and units of learning might be the same thing was a question that was seldom asked. Furthermore, although the manner in which the small units that were taught would actually come together in the mind of the learner remained a mystery to the behaviorist theory that supported these designs, there was still at least an implicit assumption that this would happen: in some remarkable fashion, all the lingual fragments would be synthesized. Where the vacuum left by the theory was noticed, common sense at least seemed to reassure designers that smaller, digestible units were more easily learnable to achieve the goal of automaticity and fluency in the additional language that was being learned. The approach was imbued with the notion that learning takes place incrementally, in small portions, and that, once learned, these fragments would endure being ‘acquired’.

Chapter 2 has dealt in greater detail with the main tenets of this tradition of applied linguistics, and its shortcomings. It is worth noting, however, that such is the historical impact of the audio-lingual method and one of its conventional predecessors, the grammar translation method, that experts still regard them as methods that will continue to be used (Lightbown and Spada 2006: 176), even into the twenty- first century. As I have remarked here and elsewhere (Weideman 2003b), the misgivings, both theoretical and practical, that led to doubts whether this was indeed an effective way of designing language teaching eventually led to the method being discredited. In fact, this design tradition constitutes a warning to us about simply assuming that what we call ‘science’ is automatically good or true. The confusion in this tradition of theoretical assumptions with evidential proof, and of analytical starting points of fieldwork with results is patent, yet dressed up in a cloak of ‘scientific’ truth. Moreover, the influence of audio-lingual ‘principles’ has endured in many slogans (“Speech before writing ,” “Teach the language, not about the language,” “Language is a set of habits”) right up to the present. Though apparently straightforward statements of scientific truth, upon closer examination they are exposed as bereft even of that. It is no surprise, therefore, that commentators like Lightbown and Spada (2006: 176) point out that the evidence suggests that this approach “does not correspond to the way that the majority of successful second language learners have acquired their proficiency.”

The research agenda generated by first generation applied linguistics contributed to the development of contrastive analyses of the mother tongue and the target language (also see below, “Second language acquisition research”). As we shall note subsequently, this agenda was itself contested, modified and superseded by others (see, e.g., Warriner 2010), but it provides a first illustration of the degree of overlap and continuity between the successive traditions of applied linguistics to be discussed here. In the case of each further style of doing applied linguistics to be discussed below we shall observe not only a uniqueness that defines that particular style, but also the ways in which it echoes earlier ways of designing language teaching and language assessment .

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