[xmca] Wetaphors for Language Learning

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Wed Sep 05 2007 - 17:42:08 PDT

Dear Bruce:
  Thanks for the ref, which I didn't know at all but have now ordered. I got my idea from David Byrne's "Complexity Theory and the Social Sciences" (Routledge, 1998).
  It's a good read too, but it wasn't what I was looking for. I need some way of integrating complexity theory and VOLITION (or CONSCIOUSNESS). In language teaching (which is what I do) volition-free approaches are very popular (nativism, subconscious acquisition, and now chaos-complexity theory).But foreign language learning is, as LSV points out in Chapter Six of Thinking and Speech, a volitional activity par excellence.
  Monday night in my graduate seminar I offered the metaphor of adding a second story to a house. It's a metaphor for additional language learning that I like very much: it's conscious, deliberate, and also PARTIAL (we don't necessarily need to include a kitchen or another master bedroom; we may only want to put in rooms for guests to stay in). Best of all, it's a TERRESTRIAL metaphor; it avoids the WATER metaphors that saturate thinking about language teaching today (and even, alas, some of LSV's writings!)
  My grads didn't like it very much: they prefer semi-aquaeous metaphors like:
  ACQUISITION (They perceive this rather as a matter of squeezing out the old native language and allowing learners to be "saturated" in the new.)
  IMMERSION (ditto)
  LEVEL, INPUT, OUTPUT, FILTER...etc. etc. etc.
  Lakoff and Johnson would describe all of these as realizations of a single underlying cognitive metaphor: 'LANGUAGE IS A LIQUID".
  Why are these metaphors so powerful in the classroom when they are so DISEMPOWERING, when the operational conclusion is always that we have to pump stuff through pipes into the learner's sodden wetware? Why are they so powerful in the seminar room when they lead to the absurd spectacle of Asian educators going begging, cap in hand, to precisely the handful of countries which have been IGNOMINIOUS FAILURES in foreign language teaching and learning at the primary level--the UK, the USA, Australia?
  Believe it or not, I think your quote from "The Dialectical Biologist" holds the answer. A purely chemotherapeutic approach to TB obviates a conscious change of THINKING. And so does a purely hydraulic approach to language learning. But how to prevent chaos/complexity theory from falling into this trap, how to include learner and teacher volition into the chaos/complexity model? I don't think the social science approach offered by Byrne really gives much of an answer, because there simply isn't enough room for INDIVIDUAL agency in learning. We need a model with rooms that show how people change can their own minds.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

Bruce Robinson <bruce@brucerob.eu> wrote:

Belated thanks for a very thought-provoking post.

> Of course, there is another explanation for Needham's problem, and when I am not thinking like a white immigrant to Asia, it is the one that I accept. It is Mike's explanation in "Psychology of Literacy" that tools are not thoughts; that technologies like literacy do not have cognitive benefits that stand head and shoulders above the contexts in which they emerge, that the meaningful uses of tools cannot far outstrip the material and social environments in which the tools arise and the challenges that those environments present. Westerners took Chinese tools and turned them to imperialistic ends because those ends corresponded to the perceived challenge that they found themselves in.
> For the same reasons, although we have the "tool" of modern medicine, and anti-bacterial drugs, and public health measures implicit in the scientific discoveries of Pasteur, the white plague which killed our beloved LSV (and also Volosinov) is on the rise again. The problem is simply that the tool Pasteur bequeathed us to vanquish tuberculosis is not enough (and in fact was largely not responsible for the decline in the disease in the first place).
> In order to conquer TB, we need a SOCIAL environment that recognizes poor housing, poor education, poor public health and the very gap between rich and poor as the true causes of the disease rather than a humble bacillus. But that requires more than a new tool; it requires a new mode of thinking. It requires, in other words, thoughtsnotools.
> David Kellogg
> Seoul National University of Education
I don't know if you're familiar with Lewontin and Levins' book 'The
Dialectical Biologist" but they make exactly the same point:

"The tubercule bacillus became _the_ cause of TB, as opposed, say to
unregulated industrial capitalism, because the bacillus was made the
point of medical attack on the disease. The alternative would not be a
'medical' but a 'political' approach to TB and so not the business of
medicine in an alientated social structure. Having identified the
bacillus as the cause a chemotherapy had to be developed to treat it,
rather than, say a social revolution."

They tie this to the non-dialectical forms of thought and fractured
practices characteristic of modern science: " The dialectical emphasis
on wholes is shared by other schools of thought which rebel against the
fragmentation of life under capitalism, the narrowness of
specialization, the reductionism of medical and agricultural theory."
... which brings us back to Descartes, Newton, Galileo and co. again.
The fragmentation of knowledge must have been linked to the changing
division of labour and the increased division of manual and intellectual
labour that went with the decline of craft production. The problem with
classical scientific method, as Levins states elsewhere, is obviously
not that that abstract way of thinking cannot grasp aspects of reality
but rather that there is then no move back from the abstract part to the
concrete whole so that things outside its narrow view simply get
ignored as possible explanatory factors.

Bruce R

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Received on Wed Sep 5 17:45 PDT 2007

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