[xmca] Talking Science

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Wed Jan 17 2007 - 09:54:46 PST

Dear Jay and Phil:
  Thanks for your various forms of assistance; I'm in the throes of writing and I need all the help I can get.
  My real criticism of Christie is that of someone who is interested, as Vygotsky was, in primary foreign language teaching. It's a strange interest, because more than usually concerned with TENOR (Teaching English for No Obvious Reason) and sometimes I think Vygotsky was the only person on earth who really understood what it was for.
  Halliday says:
  “The reason learning a foreign language can be so extraordinarily difficult for an adolescent or adult who has not grown up multilingual is that there is a real-life contradiction between these two modes of processing language: that of learning it for future use, and that of using it. They can no longer both learn language and ‘mean it’ at the same time. The teacher cannot resolve this contradiction, but has somehow to transform it from a constraint into a condition which enables and even enforces the learning process. (Collected Works Vol. 3: 141).”
  I think Vygotsky fully embraced this contradiction when he perversely CELEBRATED the differences between learning the native language and learning a foreign language and compared it to learning every day (spontaneous) concepts and scientific concepts (in Thinking and Speech, Chapter Six). But only Vygotsky has really made the case that foreign language learning is the logical way to complete a child's knowledge of his/her first language.
  Vygotsky's writings on primary foreign languages are not extensive, but not a single word is banal or superficial, or anything less than strikingly counter-intuitive. He doesn't argue that foreign language learning should be made more like native language learning. His understanding of native language learning is very near Tomasello's: in the native language, the child goes from fixed expressions, to "pivot grammars" and item based expression (e.g. "I like X" or "I want Y" or "Let's Z")s, to "abstract constructions" based on an understanding of functional categories like noun, verb, grammatical subject, etc. But in the foreign language the progression is, if anything, the other way around. I think this puts him at odds both with Christie and with Jay, but for different reasons.
  Christie wants to do away with activities like "Show and Tell" and "Morning News" where children are called upon to work with abstract constructions before they are fed the fixed expressions and formulaic language they need. Vygotsky would disagree with this; he would argue that such situations, where the child is called upon to do more than he or she can with fixed expressions or item-based "islands", are precisely the starting point of foreign language learning.
  Jay is quite right to point out that both he and Christie agree on the key point, namely that kids should be given more opportunities to "talk science". But they disagree on what talking science really means. For Christie, it's a matter of learning the register, while Jay thinks that it's largely a matter of bending the register, using ordinary, every day language to discuss scientific concepts, acquiring the concepts and discarding the empty shell of the mystique.
  Mutatis mutandem, this means using the native language to discuss foreign language concepts, something that Vygotsky too believes in (and something that is absolutely consistent with what I consider the true goal of primary foreign language teaching, which is not functional foreign language acquisition but rather teaching the child a scientific understanding of what his/her native language is).
  But Jay also seems to deny that concepts have structure. On p. 91 (of "Talking Science") he says that they are simply bits of thematic relations. Later, he relates this to Halliday's theory of grammatical metaphor, though not in so many words. He writes:
  “It is very common in scientific language to take a small thematic pattern, give it a name (e.g. ‘orbital configuration’), and then link it to other thematic items as if it were a single item itself. This is the phenomenon of thematic condensation which makes scientific language often seem so dense and impenetrable to the nonexpert who does not know how to expand these condensed items to recover their full meanings.” (95-96)
  And that brings me to my final question! Halliday says that grammatical metaphor only works one way:
  (Collected Works, Volume 5: 76)
  So for example, we go from "X, so Y" to "X causes Y" but not the other way around. Similarly, we go from "X orbits Y" (process) to "The orbital motion of X" (entity) but not the other way around.The progression is always from the more abstract to the more concrete (and also, I would argue, from the more inter-mental form of discourse to the more intra-mental form of grammar, and from relations that cannot be expressed mathematically to those that can).
  I would like this to be true, not least because it is so obviously Vygotskyan. But is it? On p. 192 (Of Vol. 5, The Language of Science), Halliday gives this example:
  An electron moves in an orbit-->The orbital motion of the electron
  It's absolutely the case that a process (moves) turns into an entity (motion). But isn't it also the case that an entity (orbit) turns into a quality and another entity (electron) turns into another quality? Or am I confusing "quality" with "modifier" here?
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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