[xmca] Evidence of a Critical Period for the Acquisition of Skiing Equipment

From: David Kellogg (vaughndogblack@yahoo.com)
Date: Fri Mar 09 2007 - 15:58:34 PST

Dear Mark:
  As you probably know, one of the very first researchers to even mention the word "social" in second language acquisition research was Schumann, who studied the apparent failure of a Costa Rican laborer, Alberto, to acquire English despite an "input rich" environment in New York.
  This was closely followed up by Schmidt, who studied the (in his view) similar (but in my eyes ENTIRELY dissimilar) inability of a Japanese painter in Hawaii called Wes. (Actually, Wes, being a modern artist, was simply not very interested in English indefinite articles.)
  But nobody to my knowledge has really looked at the widespread failure of American, Canadian, and British teachers of English living in Japan to acquire the Japanese language, despite the daily provision of comprehensible input. I suppose there may be a solid body of research on this in Japanese, with a lively debate about whether it should be attributed to differences in intelligence or affective factors or simple unwillingness to assimilate. But perhaps I project.
  As for the other things you mention, I¡¯m afraid you¡¯ve already HEARD what meagre thoughts I have. I don¡¯t actually understand what you mean when you say things like ¡°You can¡¯t dispel Krashen (why not?); he¡¯s needed (by whom?), he just didn¡¯t take the right side of the fence (what fence?)¡± As I tried to make clear, I don¡¯t think the American brand of applied linguistics and second language acquisition has much to offer us in Asia. I don't even eat Florida oranges, which are currently being dumped on the fruit market here.
  I have, however, consumed far more Krashen than I ever wanted to. I've also been to hear him give the same talks again and again. By doing this I have discovered that Krashen is one of those people you really only have to hear once every thirty years, because he never changes his mind or ¡°acquires¡± any of the ¡°input¡± there is against his hypothesis.
  There is certainly plenty to read on why Krashen and Vygotsky won¡¯t sit in the same room. You might start here:
  Dunn, W. and J. Lantolf (1998) ¡®i + 1¡¯ and the ZPD: Incommensurable constructs; incommensurable discourses¡¯ Language Learning 48: 411-42.
  There are also good reasons why I personally wouldn¡¯t put them in the same room. First of all, Krashen¡¯s a strict computationalist: that¡¯s what ¡°comprehensible input¡± means. Secondly, he thinks that learner production plays no role in "acquisition", which is not only anti-Vygotskyan, it¡¯s an offense against teacher good sense. Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the point I was trying to make in my last letter: Krashen, like ALL Western ¡°second language acquisition¡± ideologues, condemns children (and even adults) to starting all over, and does not recognize that a new language is built on the semantic system of the old.
  Yes, I read Scollon and White and a lot of other things about the Critical Period hypothesis (Lenneberg, for example, and more recently David Lagabaster), but I think the whole Critical Period hypothesis was nothing but an adultomorphic (mis)understanding of how big a child-sized language really is. You notice NOBODY discusses whether or not there is a critical period for the acquisition of literacy. I wonder why not? It is a subject that my mother in law, who learnt to read in her late twenties, would be very interested in reading about.
  Or how about skiing? About two weeks ago we had our graduate school retreat, which was held in a ski resort in the mountains near the DMZ. The lifts were open all night so after the grads finished their presentations and repaired to a karaoke, I hit the slopes.
  From the lift, I could usually tell well enough who had learnt to ski as a child and who had not. Yes, it usually had something to do with how well they skied, but not always (I learnt as a child, for example, and I am a poor skier).
  The native-skiiers (child learners) were extremely fluent; they had a style developed from basically schuss-booming the fall line: going down the slope in a line parallel to the edge of the slope, legs spread wide apart to keep from falling one way or the other, and paying almost no attention to how fast they were going. If they were skilled, they had refined this into a graceful f or s curve, but they were still skiing the fall line.
  The non-native skiiers (adult-learners) were more concerned with accuracy; they had a style developed from traversing the fall line: going across the slope in a line perpendicular to the edge of the slope, skis close together, and kept closely together in neat turns, paying careful attention to speed, balance and hexis. If they were skilled they did this at great speed and with considerable aplomb, but they were still skiing across the slope rather than down it.
   It occurred to me that this was quite consistent with how Vygotsky differentiates between native language learning and foreign language learning (a point which I made at some length, apparently to no great effect, in my last letter). In the native language, the child acts first, and analyzes much later. But foreign language learning commences from the highest point of development of the native language, and this allows children to focus on accuracy and analysis from the outset.
  Naturally, this way of learning a language has strengths and it has weaknesses, as Vygotsky said. But a view of language learning which says that the strengths of this type of learning are worthless and the weaknesses are extremely desirable is rather suspicious, isn¡¯t it? Mightn¡¯t it be part of a marketing strategy for flooding East Asia with untrained ¡°native speakers¡± of English? Mightn¡¯t it be part of overwheening American arrogance (and associated ignorance) in other fields of intellectual endeavour?
  I do not accept that Confucius and Vygotsky are incompatible; quite the contrary. I think that Confucius' belief that the self is not autonomous, but can be explained as a network of social relations is in some ways a direct ancestor of the Vygotskyan concept. I also don¡¯t agree with your essentialist view of how teaching is carried out in Asia; this is really the sort of thing that I was criticizing Lantolf for uncritically adopting from Geneung.
  Let¡¯s assume that you and Geneung are right, however. After all, she is a colonel in the US Army, and as we know, they never make mistakes. The same question that I raised with respect to the Russians arises: Why are there so many more successful Japanese learners of English than American learners of Japanese?
  David Kellogg
  Seoul National University of Education

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