[xmca] For Mark

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Thu Mar 08 2007 - 15:25:10 PST

Dear Mark:
  Actually, you and I are in the same boat, as well as in the same neck of the woods. I do English teaching, and I work in East Asia. I'm also not a Ph.D; I only have an MA in applied linguistics (now of rather quaint antique origin).
  Let me put to you, then, a rather perverse proposition that I was turning over in my mind this morning on the Seoul subway: in most areas of the social sciences and humanities, certainly including the field of language teaching, it was the Russians who, after all, won the Cold War.
  This shouldn't really be so surprising. The Russian investment in language teaching outweighed the American one in much the same way that the American investment in the machinery of murder overwhelmed the Russian one. During the height of the Cold War, there were doubtless more English TEACHERS in Russia than Russian STUDENTS in America.
  I know that when I started studying Chinese at the University of Chicago there were almost as many teachers in the room as students (and most of the students didn't give a damn about China, they were self-righteous Maoists on their way to careers as neo-cons).
  But the discoveries that the Russians made about language teaching sit rather uncomfortably with what Westerners think, and in particular with what we teach. Vygotsky's writings about foreign language teaching are not extensive, and some of them seem rather contradictory (though when you think carefully about them you see that they are not).
  On the one hand, he believes that the "early years" are made for languge learning and especially foreign language learning. He was even a rather enthusiastic champion of bilingual parenting, of which he was, of course, a product. But on the other he holds that foreign languages are a school subject like any other, and should be taught that way, and that when the process of learning is so different, the product cannot possible the same. He argues that fluent use of the foreign language will emerge only after many years of study, if then.
  There is, in fact, no contradiction here at all. He rejects the Piagetian notion that foreign languages can be built by "displacing" the child's first language learning strategy; he wants to build the foreign language on the level of the child's most advanced (most abstract) understanding of his native language and not begin all over again at the bottom. That is why (to use a very broad brush) Russians treat their children as adults in the classroom, while American teachers prefer to treat adults as children.
  Krashen is a particularly bad example. Krashen and all the other "comprehensibilists", "inputtists", "immersionists" and peddlers of painless or unconscious or non-deliberate language learning in the West in general must believe that children start over again at the bottom.
  Cameron says, for example, that there is a "switch point" at approximately seven or eight, before which the child learns better in spoken language and after which the child learns better in written language. She claims that this "switch point" must be considerably delayed in a foreign language. Vygotsky claims precisely the opposite.
  Above all, for Vygotsky, learning involves VOLITION. Now, if you think about it, you will see that this places him in DIRECT opposition to both Chomskyan innatism (the theoretical basis of Krashen's "LAD") and the emerging paradigm in foreign language learning, which is probably emergentism. Both of these argue for a bottom-up learning of foreign languages. But Vygotsky holds that they are learnt from conscious analysis to unconscious synthesis.
  The Russians know. During the Cold War, the image we had of the "Evil Empire" as a kind of Klingon society; highly advanced technologically with their sputniks and vostoks and whatnot, but basically feudal and maybe even savage in their social relations. But as soon as we look at their successes in language learning, we realize that the real Star Trek, as opposed to the one on TV, was a tragedy: the Klingons won.
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education
  PS: I'm afraid I disagree with Phil about Lantolf and Thorne's new book, "Sociocultural Theory and the Genesis of Second Language Development". I thought Lantolf's edited compilation "Sociocultural Theory and Second Language Learning" was much better. But both books contain a good refutation of Krashen and unconscious learning (Swain's contribution in the latter).
  The problem with Lantolf and Thorne (for me) is that it's really an edited compilation without the contributors; it's an attempt to integrate personal accounts, activity theory, dynamic assessment, and a whole number of paradigms that are not only incompatible with each other, but each in its own way incompatible with Vygotsky. The ways in which they are incompatible with LSV are studiously ignored.
  The worst point (for me) is Lantolf's absolutely uncritical acceptance of his informant Genung's complaints about the informant's Chinese teacher, and out of hand rejection of the Chinese point of view (Lantolf and Thorne, p. 242, but see also Lantolf and Genung in Kramsch ed. Language Acquisition and Language Socialization, London: Continuum).
  Geneung's complaints (I wouldn't call them criticisms) are EXACTLY what I heard from my peers as a student of Chinese at the University of Chicago. Maybe that's why I speak Chinese today while most of them are probably getting ready to invade Iran. It's certainly this kind of bloody-minded imperialist contempt for other points of view on teaching that lost America the Cold War.

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