H. Dougals Brown


H. Douglas Brown: I’m H. Douglas Brown, San Francisco State University.

I think if you look at the history of language teaching, you’ll see that probably for roughly a century or so, we could characterize the journey of language teachers and language teaching research by what I like to call a methodical approach, a method-approach. And that is that it’s an approach we—where—where we see a revolution appearing every—every 25 years or so. Um, and one method replace is—replaces another and there are fads that come in and go and come and go. And what I think we’ve seen in the last maybe quarter of a century, maybe less than that is really what I would call in the sense, a non-methods approach or a communicative approach and truly an approach to language teaching that requires teachers to—to really think about uh the audience that they’re addressing to think in terms of a cycle of uh—of diagnosis, treatment, and assessment. That is diagnose your students, your context, your needs. Um, try to invent some kind of uh set of treatments for those particular needs, those contents—those uh context and then uh to assess the success of those both through the outcomes of the students and uh through um looking reflectively at the teachers on methodology. So that would be um a much different approach from uh an approach where you would bring a suitcase full of prepackaged ideas and just open up your suitcase and deliver uh no matter what the audience is. And so what I think we’re doing now is we’re much more sensitive to context and much more sensitive to a wide variety of possible treatments that can fit these various context that are worldwide and up and down the levels of proficiency, across scale areas uh purposes and so forth.

I think it’s always interesting and informative to look at um a number of different sides of human functioning. And sometimes in education I think we tend to emphasize the—the intellectual and mental, the cognitive side, and we look at learning theories and sometimes we forget that learning theories are under guarded by uh—by the—the whole emotional state of a human being. And so I would see that—I would say that language teachers need to be aware of uh both the emotional and the intellectual, both the affective and the cognitive sides of human functioning in order to appeal to—to both of those elements as we teach them because learners certainly can’t just learn intellectually without having uh a strong emotional base, a management of emotions as they were. I like uh Daniel Goldman’s uh work on emotional intelligence and his idea of EQ because it—it emphasizes for us, I think the importance of that affective element. So then the linguistic side is um—is bringing in the language uh aspect here where one could bring in any subject matter field uh that one wants to. But in this case, we’re bringing in a second language and so uh linguistic uh elements, the characteristics of a language, the uh—the background language of learners and so forth, need to be considered as we look at uh the—the whole human being in the classroom.

Automoticity is one of my favorite uh principles actually. I think it’s one that sometimes people misunderstand because a lot of people talk about fluency in second language acquisition and yet we have dozens of different definitions of fluency. And uh, uh—but I think if we look at automoticity uh we get a—a better picture cognitively of what’s happening, what—what a learner is doing when the learner is fluent in a language. And—and basically I’ll define it with a metaphor, a quick metaphor, and that is that I think of learners as being uh very much like uh the hard drive on a computer or a whole set up of a computer system. And automoticity to me is the ability to take the—all the bits and pieces of language that a learner has uh been exposed to and all the little exercises in the classrooms, all the definitions, all the grammar rules, all those—those conversations and little bits and pieces of group work and so forth and to store in the hard drive of the brain uh the important elements that are coded for later retrieval. And uh so automoticity is the ability to access all of those gazillion of bits of pieces of language uh out of the hard drive in a fraction of a second, nanoseconds of time, in order to be then what we would say is fluent. And I—including—including both spoken and listening fluency because when you listen to a language, people aren’t uh in—in authentic situations aren’t going to slow down for you and give you one word at a time. So learners have to be able to access meaning uh very rapidly. And uh when they’re speaking they rarely have many occasions to have long, long pauses and so speech needs to come out in a flow of language as it were. So that’s what I would call automoticity.

I could say a lot of things about exercise uh that develop uh automoticity or that develop fluency. Um, the—the most important thing I think is for learners to be given opportunities to use language meaningfully. And one of my 12 principles is meaningful learning I get from cognitive psychology as well and that is to use language for—for real purpose, for authentic purposes. Uh, to—to put learners into situations where they really are negotiating with each other for—for real meaning, for information, uh for a social exchange, whatever it might be, um and—and in the process of doing that to in able them every now and then to sort of step out of themselves and to—to look back and think about uh what—what those bits and pieces of—of grammar or lexicon or uh the socially linguistic aspects of language or phonology, whatever it might be that uh learners can—can not only in a sense, get into the pool and swim but uh can do a little bit of thinking about what they’re doing while they’re in the pool and swimming to inform themselves. And so whatever uh approaches and techniques one has to, in a sense, um get the flow of language going through—through group and pair work or through even—even through uh teacher/student interaction, uh would—would be in a sense those—that—that uh segment which gets automoticity accomplished. Um, but uh we—we have to make use of classrooms, we have to make use of our instruction so just getting people to swim in the pool or to use language is not enough. So uh then come what we normally would call form focused instructional techniques where one might either before, during, or after some kind of um, uh authentic language exchange uh offer some kind of instruction by way of—of focusing students on language form. Be that form phonology, grammar, uh lexicon, sociolinguistic discourse rules, or whatever, uh to try to bring the two together so that learners are not just uh, uh, uh swimming and flailing in the uh sea of language or whatever uh, but they are also informing themselves of—of some of the—the elements of language and a, in a sense, learning self correction techniques and strategically involving themselves uh in the process of thinking about their language just enough that they can improve themselves, but not so much that they then get blinded, in a sense, by all of these forms that can confuse them entirely.

Uh, meaningful learning um, uh I think it’s the second one on my—my magic uh list of 12 principles that I have. Um, and it’s—it’s taken it from some cognitive psychologists, namely David Osovelle who—who I thought was brilliant in contrasting wrote and meaningful learning. And so if you think of a continuum of—of wrote learning, which is the, in a sense, the probably most of the time short term retention of perceptions that one has rather those perceptions be visual, or auditory. Um, the—the wrote aspect would be just taking them in for short-term retention without associating them with anything that you—you know or any background experience or anything. Uh, meaningful learning, on the other hand, would uh learning that uh makes a conservative attempt to pull the current perception, or the current word, or grammar structure, or phrase, or discourse structure, whatever it may be, the current perception that a learner is—is involved in in a classroom and uh to relate those perceptions to one’s own experience. Um, and so it’s—it’s—in a sense it’s very simple. Uh, it’s—it’s not complex. Um, but maybe it’s a little more complex to—to bring it about in language learning by making sure that activities and techniques are—are meaningful, they’re important to learners, they’re interesting to learners. There’s a whole lot of boring stuff out there. Uh, we’re getting better at this. I mean I think if you look at all the materials available in the profession today there’s—we’re better and better at interesting, relevant, fascinating, challenging materials uh for learners. But that would be then achieving meaningfulness so that the people can relate to what their learning and not think of language as being one empty wrote exercise after another.

I would say uh the role of explicit grammar instruction is uh extremely important. Um, but it may depend on how somebody wants to define explicit because there—there’s a continuum of—of explicitness where we could go from—from simple let’s say pointing out an error to a student with a—a—a nod of the head or a frown uh, in other words, indicating to a learner that an error has been made. That could be—in a way that could be called explicit grammar instruction. Um, and on the other hand of the continuum is—is uh having a teacher stand up there and pontificate for uh too many minutes on end about all of the linguistic uh, uh intricacies of a particular grammatical uh structure or whatever. Uh, which then could also be called explicit grammar instruction. Uh, and in a sense there’s a place for—for both. There’s probably less of a place for the pontification. Uh, I would argue against uh going on and on and boring students with uh—with all of the stuff that we found fascinating when we took uh introduction to linguistics or something. But um I think that learners can benefit greatly and there’s a good deal of research out there that convinces me and I think a lot of other people that explicit form focused instruction, focusing on the form of language uh has its benefits. And when you think about it, if you were to analogize to um swimming or tennis or whatever—I happen to be a tennis player and uh, you know, I think I would not be as good a tennis player if I just got out on the court and just played constantly without ever thinking about my game. And so it helps me on occasion to—to look at something, to—to monitor something, to examine uh something in—in that game that I could do better. I think it helps learners in a language uh on occasion to—to pull back and monitor something that uh they need to work on. And it could be at any level of the linguistics of language. Uh, but it’s our roles as teachers, I think, to bring that explicitness into play in—in—in short digestible chunks so that learners don’t get completely bored uh and completely uninterested then in the language uh, but that they can make use of these helpful hints as it were, uh on language to uh—to go on and then continue their communicative efforts in the language.

Interlanguage is a kind of interesting term because uh it was—it was coined in 1972 uh by Larry Sellecker in a language-learning article. And ever since then, uh language teachers and linguists have—have kind of uh, uh latched on to that term and they think there’s some sort of a magic in it. And uh it—it unfortunately has come to mean a lot of things. Uh, it—it—it’s come to mean everything from uh learner language, which is now more perhaps the acceptable term for describing the fact that learners go through various processes of—in learning a second language uh, to—to—to very specialized questions about the systemoticity of language. Now I would boil it down for—for teachers by saying that uh the importance of interlanguage is that learners proceed in a step-wise progression toward eventually full proficiency or at least eventually toward the proficiency that—whatever proficiency they’re going to achieve. And that uh those stages of language acquisition are to be respected by a teacher. We—we need to understand that learners are different, um lots of variation, that um one learner may be in—in one particular stage and another in—in another stage. Uh, we have to try to reach them—them all. Uh, we—we don’t all take the same pathways to success in a language. Uh, but we do—a conscious learner does continue to progress through stages. And um—and so we have to be a little bit patient and we also have to understand uh another important thing about interlanguage and that is that errors are a natural process of learning. And uh that learners learn through errors. Uh, so we—we don’t uh—we don’t look at errors and try to uh, uh eradicate them or think of them as being uh sinful items in the process. But um we look at errors as—as a natural part of—of the journey toward proficiency and a—a natural, in a sense, manifestation of the fact that learners are going through uh these—these stages and they’re actually processing language. Uh, if they didn’t make errors, I would be suspicious of uh what the learner has been doing and—and I would suspect that the learner has been memorizing some stuff and then regurgitating it uh for teacher, or the test, or whatever the case may be. So errors are really, I think, a good indication of um internalizing language systematically uh and then of—our jobs as teachers is to try to work with that stage-wise progression and bring people on, make them aware of—of their errors and how errors are, in a sense, windows of opportunity uh for—for their advancement.

I would only say in regard to teaching children and adults in that different spectrum that um there are a number of different factors that we need to consider and some of them are extremely obvious to anybody. Um, you know, children are um—are in the process of intellectual development uh, of emotional development, um depending on the age we’ve got a number of different possible factors that play—involved in learning. Um, and um so in—in—in looking at those possible stages or points in development, uh the teacher will need to try to bring language that is understandable, that is interesting to that particular age, uh and uh relevant to their own lives, and useful in terms of making language something that they can actually use for their own uh meaningful purposes. Um, uh I think also we need to think about things like attention span that are—that are obvious probably to any parent that has uh, you know, brought up a child, that attention spans are—are—are shorter with—with children depending on the topic and sometimes their attention spans can be incredibly long. Uh, we of—we often assume that children’s attention spans are short. Uh, but they’re usually short for all the boring stuff that adults bring to them. Uh, but they can be very long actually when something is fascinating to a child. And so the key then for the attention span issue is to bring interesting, fascinating um material or—or media to a child in the process of learning a language. And we might be surprised that uh, you know, adult attention spans might turn out to be actually shorter then children if we really thought about the developments of the material. I could say more about that but I—I think I’ll pass at this point.

Um, I would pick among many possible areas uh that I would define as unresolved, I would pick assessment. Uh, language assessment, testing—testing language proficiency as maybe the biggest, thorniest, uh most complex issue that, at least that I’m interested in. Uh, and I think all of education—educational institutions everywhere are interested in uh how can we best test a person’s language proficiency. Um, how can we, for example, make assessment authentic? Uh, you know, we—we tend to take contrive situations, we put people into uh the worst of all possible circumstances sometimes and we expect to measure their proficiency uh with things like paper and pencil tests under timed conditions. You know, multiple choice and all those—those really relatively horrible circumstances for assessing communicative language proficiency. And so uh authenticity—how do we achieve authenticity? When we—when we get authenticity in assessment um then as a testing developer how do we achieve practicality? That is, how do we achieve uh the—the construction of um a test method that is authentic but is uh relatively objective, let’s say, to score, to evaluate. And relatively cheap to evaluate because we all have uh—uh budgets that we have to work with and we have time constraints, which is also part of the practicality issue. And so the tug-o-war now I think in the assessment business for all of us both as classroom teachers and as um, um institutional test developers is injecting more of the real world into assessment and—and yet at the same time keeping our test uh doable, practical, scoreable, quick turnaround time, uh and all those practical issues that are difficult to achieve when you just suppose those two particular values. But we’re getting there and we’re not there yet. That’s why I think it’s still an issue.

Well, I would—I would not try to characterize the lexical approach so much as make a comment about lexical acquisition and a comment about uh when—when people say the lexical approach, uh comment about uh what I think is important here for teachers to—to uh look at and consider in the process of teaching. And that is that we—we’ve gone through a history uh where we’ve paid a lot of attention to stretches of communication that are uh sentences long and sometimes involving uh, uh discourse that goes back and forth across uh—across speakers in a discourse many times. Uh, we focus on reading text that are—are, you know, paragraphs to pages long, writing that is paragraphs to pages long, uh listening that—that sometimes is either very segmentally involved in phonology or it’s long stretches of—of either academic lectures or conversations or whatever. And so what the lexical approach does is I think it brings us back in focus on those—those nice little elements of language, the words of language. And um, along with some of the research now in corpus linguistics, which is absolutely fascinating, uh we’re—we’re beginning to be able to isolate uh what are some of the more frequent and more interesting collocations of words. And so it’s not just looking at words, it’s not just studying vocabulary and—and bringing that back into emphasis. But it’s thinking about uh words that go with other words. Um, and uh if I had uh—I—I cannot give you an example so whatever you do with the camera you’ve got to cut this part.

Well, I think that uh—uh, autonomy is one of my um almost favorite principles. It’s—it’s something that I think is—is very, very important for language learning. In a sense, I think teachers have to always um think about the fact that—that our goal in teaching a—a student in the class uh is really to get that student to become uh capable of continuing learning beyond our classroom. And—and so autonomy is really—that’s the issue is how do we get students to become, in a sense, independent of a classroom and independent of the teacher? And that—that is what I would call autonomy. And so uh certainly we—we can’t expect that learners are going to stay in classrooms for the rest of their lives. I mean at some points we—at some point we have to release a learner to uh the cold world out there and say, “OK, you go on from here.” And, in fact, daily we release learners. I mean, we have learners in for periods of time, an hour, three hours, whatever it may be, and then we say, “OK, class is done” and autonomy is what takes over at that point. It should be in the classroom as well, but it also takes over at that point and it’s what would drive the learner to use the language outside of the classroom. And so um—um, there—there are a number of different things that could be said about autonomy. Uh, I would say that what we are generally calling strategies-based instruction uh would be a movement in language teaching to get learners to think about themselves, to think about what their personal preferences are, what their styles are, uh how they work, um what are their favorite techniques for—for uh getting language into their brain cells, and then working on some strategies that have worked for them and for other people, uh perhaps sharing those strategies with each other, getting the teacher to---to give learners some hints about um, you know, what it is that’s helped the—helped the teacher in the process of learning let’s say uh, uh words of a language or, you know, how to make conversation, or, you know, how to get rid of anxiety or—as the case may be. And so uh strategies-based instruction would be an attempt to give learners lots of opportunity to um, uh to—to not only think about themselves, but to think about little techniques that they would use uh perhaps in the classroom, but more importantly outside of the classroom to continue learning a language. And so uh, for example, if—if you’ve been talking about risk taking in class and people are shy and they don’t want to participate very much, uh and they’re afraid of making a mistake or whatever, uh a great thing to do would be to um get students to list some of the things that they have done uh to get rid of this—this feeling of shyness. And uh, you know, it might be things outside of the classroom like—like uh force yourself to—to talk to three people uh in the next 24 hours that you’ve never met before and just, you know, ask them a question or whatever the case may be, if you’re in a situation where there is the—where the foreign language is being uh spoken right outside of your classroom. Um, lists of things that you could do um maybe on your own even to sort of uh think about your own strengths and self-esteem that can say, “Look I’m a—I’m a good person, I’m smart, I don’t need to be afraid of making one little mistake here or there.” And so I think getting learners strategically involved in looking at themselves and in practicing little strategies out there would um ultimately lead to this independence that I think is tremendously important.

Um, when I say ecological model of language acquisition I—I’m actually just creating a metaphor. And um the metaphor that I used in—in my book uh was essentially a kind of heartocultural metaphor uh that I think works fairly well for language learning and uh that is that if you think of learners as possessing things like the seeds of predisposition and um the soil of strategies and styles and uh that the job of the learner and the job of the teacher is actually to—to germinate those seeds, to—to get whatever is in the brain right now, whatever the current experience and background experience of a learner is, to get—to get that started, to get something going and uh, you know, in a sense, to maybe uh water it or fertilize it as a teacher and as a learner uh to the extent that learners find out the—that the right kind of climate to, in a sense, bring forth this language. And uh so it’s—it’s not so much uh and ecology in—in the strict scientific sense of the term, but I think metaphorically uh we can—we can look at learners as—as a germinating language, uh growing branches of comprehension. The production of—of the, you know, the fruits of—of communicative competence as the case may be the—the climate of context. Uh, learners always have to deal with—with context and one of the most difficult things for a language learner is to take the decontextualized—often decontextualized language of the classroom and um take it out there into the real world where things are entirely different, unpredictable, and—and never before rehearsed in the classroom uh and make it work. And so you’ve got uh that kind of climate that in a sense a learner needs to perceive, gauge, and be able both comprehend and produce language accordingly. Uh, and there is perhaps a kind of cycle involved here in—in going back and—and learning more and learning more and uh, you know, the more language a learner can um—can learn and use in a sense it could create the—the need and the desire to—to learn more and to get, you know, more seeds going and in a sense to grow the uh this—this arbiter of this tree or whatever the case may be.

Um, the—the contrast of analysis hypothesis as it was called uh that’s uh 50 years old uh theory, in a sense, still holds strong today. I—I think if we were to look at factors in learners that are influential in acquiring a second language, uh surely the first language is going to rank right up there among the—the top most factors. Um, we—we have this first language, it’s—when we learn a second one we—we assume a lot of things about the first language that uh that are going to work in the second language. So we bring words, we bring phrases; we bring uh all kinds of assumptions. Um, and so I—I think teachers who can recognize the first language and—or who understand it a little—a little bit and who can uh, in a sense, appreciate why a learner is making certain errors, uh that’s going to be a good thing for a teacher to have. Um, but one of the things that—that—that I like about some of the research that spun off from the contrastive analysis hypothesis was um the research on—on uh subtle differences. And that is, uh the assumption was that the greater the difference between two languages, the greater would be the difficulty. Uh, or if you have let’s say a verb system in a language but say you have the English verb system and you take um, uh a Chinese verb system and you look at them and—and somehow you scientifically decide that they’re very different from each other. Uh, you might then make the assumption according to the previous hypothesis that that’s going to be very difficult for a learner to acquire. Uh, or if you have a word even in a language that uh exists in my language but doesn’t exist in the new language, that’s going to be very difficult. Um, but the—what uh—what uh Alerna Zohozenay (? spelling) way back a number of years ago, in this uh spelling uh research, uh was that uh learners who actually have the same spelling system in their native and—and target languages uh were worse spellers than learners who had different systems, alphabet systems. So uh those who—who—whose native language was Chinese or Arabic or Japanese or Korean uh were better spellers of English then those whose native languages were Spanish or French or German, as the case may be. And uh whether this—this can be extrapolated to all aspects of language, remains to be seen. But I think it reminds us that sometimes the subtle differences are actually more difficult then the major differences. And so if we—if we have a verb system that is completely different, it might actually be easier to learn because you don’t have the interfering effects of—of this home verb system—the home language verb system. Uh, you have something entirely new and you’re starting off on—on—on—in a whole new fields and uh you start building the blocks accordingly rather than trying to take your old building blocks and putting them into the new language. So that’s something sometimes I think we forget in teaching a language, that there are subtle differences from uh—that—that maybe extremely difficult for language learners. We also, of course, I need to add that um the differences between the first and second language are—are—are only uh one—they’re a major factor but it’s—it’s just one factor. In learning we have to consider many other possible effects on second language acquisition.

Well my—my soapbox issue lately uh is what might be best described as social responsibility. Teachers for social responsibility—there’s a cocas in TESOL here right now uh that is just formed uh called Teachers For Social Responsibility, TSR. And uh, basically the—the message is that teachers are not just language teachers, that we as teachers in a sense are—are—are—I think you could—you could say we are called to—to do something more than just teach nouns and verbs and—and uh, you know, uh semantics and all those other uh great things that people have to learn in order to learn a language. That we are—we are also models as teachers, we uh—we have a conviction about um what this world could become if people start and continue to communicate with each other um more fruitfully across international boundaries, across—certainly across linguistic boundaries. And uh in a sense that we—we engage in what uh some people would call critical pedagogy that we—that we uh critically look at uh, uh—at—at the world as it is and understand that the students that we have in our classrooms are future leaders of the world. And so what are you and I going to do to—to change the world, in a sense, by modeling behavior or by inspiring a student in our classroom. And it’s a very fine line I think that we tread between um—in a sense, trying to push our own agenda, our own philosophy, our own religion, our own uh kind of vision of the world. And at the same time respecting students uh—culture students’ beliefs, their own value systems, and their own ethics and morality. And yet I think we have to do that, I think we have to do both. I mean, my conviction is that teachers need to be uh—to take seriously their role as agents of change, as um, people who have a responsibility toward students to—to um help those students to become future leaders of the world. And yet at the same time, to be extraordinarily sensitive to—to where all of these learners come from, uh philosophically, religiously, morally, ethically. Uh, and—and—and not become uh proselytizers, not become people who push a particular philosophy on people, but through modeling a through behavior, at the same time some how sensitively uh helping people to—to make this world a—a more peaceful, a more humane uh place to live in. And um, it—it brings about interesting debate and interesting—sometimes interesting uh, uh, uh conflicts, uh verbal conflicts, and uh—and yet I think it’s—it’s a role that uh certainly teacher training programs uh need to make sure that that element is in there, that we’re not just training people to teach languages. Uh, we’re—we’re training human beings to—to uh influence other human beings and we should watch that particular role carefully and uh carry it out sensitively.

Yeah, yeah. Yeah, I think one of—one of the hallmarks of—of language teachers that I found all around the world is valuing diversity. And in some ways it’s a little bit ironic when we teach English to reach billions of people in the world um that some people look at that as uh—as—as trying to put the world into, you know, one—one little box. But I think those of us who look twice at—at our role as English teachers will say, ‘Well, wait a minute. Um, you know, we’re not saying that—that English…’—first of all English is just accidentally happens to be a world language right now. It’s just a historical accident. Uh, and so it’s not that English is so special, but what’s special is—is all of the diversity around the world and that people can—can uh in a sense celebrate that diversity through their home cultures, through their home languages, and uh—and so part of our job is—is, in a sense, to teach English as English plus—English plus the home languages and the home cultures and not English as a replacement of all of that wonderful diversity that’s out there.