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RE: [xmca] Cognitivist theory & language learning


Very impressive to be undertaking a new language! Planning a trip?
Let me briefly take on the challenge of unpacking the piece of
pedagogical advice you've forwarded.
First, your interest in showing "what's wrong with this, and how to
understand learning more appropriately" participates in a historical
process within psychology to reify "learning" as a unitary or
integrative construct. This historical process responds to the
preparadigmatic status of psychology in which diverse basic intuitions
about learning are elaborated in a variety of psychological subfields
(e.g., behavioral psychological, developmental psychology, social
psychology). Psychology only emerges as a mature field of study to the
extent some form of paradigmatic consensus is achieved. So presenting
learning as a unitary or integrative process is the preoccupation of
psychologists of all stripes. It is in this frame that one
interpretation can be right only if others are wrong. Vygotsky, himself,
was fully aware of the competitive stakes, and fully motivated by them:
"He who can decipher the meaning of the cell of psychology, the
mechanism of one reaction, has found the key to all psychology"
(Vygotsky, 1927, vol. 3, p. 320).

The alternative would be to ask a different question along the lines of
"can anyone demonstrate how this advice for language learners might be
drawing on an interpretation of learning that is inappropriate or
limited with respect to the actual goal of mastering a language?" This
is the question I'll take a stab at answering, splaying out "learning"
across what I see as its basic metaphorical interpretations: habituation
(toward skills); construction (toward concepts); enculturation (toward

First the goal of mastering a language needs to be clarified. I'll
assume you're not endeavoring to understand the language in the sense
that a linguist might. Thus, constructing conceptual models of the
structure of the language against a background theory is not the
targeted goal. Rather I'll assume you're interested in achieving some
level of fluency with the language.

This latter goal can be interpreted along two trajectories, an
habituationist trajectory in which one gradually builds up an
associative network of responses through repetitive experience, and an
enculturationist trajectory of increasingly central participation within
a social community. It seems to me, the language learning community has
no clear consensus about the relative efficacy of these two agenda, or
their possible interdependence, in actually achieving language fluency.
However, mutual antagonism across strategies plays out the paradigmatic
conflicts of the related psychological schools. Perhaps what rankles for
you about the suggested memorization strategy--clearly pursuing the
habituationist agenda--is the paradigmatic assumption that this kind of
instruction, alone, is deemed sufficient for language mastery.

Connectionist models seem to me to be a good way to think about skill
development through habituation. For instance, watching dubbed and
subtitled movies can be seen as a way of establishing associations among
elements within a connectionist system, the inductive power of the human
information processing system being prodigious. However, pedagogical
discourses about skill development have been much influenced by
behaviorism which posits a much simpler mechanism of contiguous
association. As a result, behaviorist-inspired instruction frequently
reduces the scope of activity to simple repetitive experience. Perhaps
it is the weak scope of associative activity that seems so wrong-headed
to you about the proposed instruction. 


-----Original Message-----
From: xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu [mailto:xmca-bounces@weber.ucsd.edu]
On Behalf Of Tony Whitson
Sent: Monday, May 24, 2010 11:13 AM
To: xmca@weber.ucsd.edu
Subject: [xmca] Cognitivist theory & language learning

I'm using a variety of tools for learning Portuguese, including dubbed
subtitled movies as well as books written for instruction. In one of 
these, following a list of sixteen first-conjugation verbs, I find this 
helpful advice:

In order to learn these verbs, try to first memorize them by putting the

verbs into lists or categories. Can you divide the above list into
that I do often" and "things that I rarely do"? How about dividing the 
list into "action verbs" and "mental verbs"? Whatever categories you
to organize the verbs, the important thing is that you find a way to 
process and arrange these new pieces of information in your brain. Once 
you have done this, it will be easier to retrieve the information later.

(Source: Ferreira, Fernanda L. The Everything Learning Brazilian 
Portuguese Book: Speak, Write and Understand Portuguese in No Time.
Mass.: Adams Media, 2007., p. 111)

I see this as an extraordinarily clear and straightforward expression of
view of learning that I find quite common in education circles. I expect

that I'll be using it as a clear example of wrong-headed thinking about 

Maybe others will find similar value in this example; but I'm also
to ask if anyone has equally clear and succinct examples to share that 
could be used to show what's wrong with this, and how to understand 
learning more appropriately, instead ... things that would be clear and 
easily accessible for people in education for whom the cognitivist 
approach seems to be right?

Muito obrigado,

Tony Whitson
UD School of Education
NEWARK  DE  19716


"those who fail to reread
  are obliged to read the same story everywhere"
                   -- Roland Barthes, S/Z (1970)
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