Musingon the lingo of parrots

4th November 2005 at 00:00
Non-native speakers of English are being hampered by a mechanistic approach to assessment methods. Robert Belcher reports.

How many brilliant people did badly at school? Fathers often proudly cite Sir Winston Churchill, who left school without an O-level to his name. Can you imagine young Winston sitting down with his teacher and negotiating his learning goals or individual learning plan (ILP) for the forthcoming year?

At a time when ILPs (incredibly ludicrous paperwork) and Ofsted (organisation of frightening school teachers by extreme documentation) are being called into question, teachers are being forced to produce figures showing achievement - all to reach politicians' targets.

Bureaucracy and education are now synonymous. ILPs are not being used to help students. It is a sad fact that this country has this approach to education. No other operates in the same way. In Europe, education is education.

How can achievement really be measured? These days, we all know that what is in a student's head is not always produced in oral or paper form. So why are we being asked to produce evidence to convert what is unmeasurable into numbers? Answer: for students learning English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), who come from abroad and are thrust into British society.

Surely targets are not the way to go about treating these individuals? They have been labelled as people who need only basic life skills, such as dealing with going to the bank or post office. Their human side has been forgotten.

The fact that they may not have attended school does not mean they are incapable of learning or have enquiring minds. Adults do not learn a second language in the same way as children do. It requires "learning" and "acquisition" - the conscious and the unconscious, if you like; the deliberate effort of the learner to work out the grammar and learn the vocabulary. At the same time, it also requires the slower acquisition by exposure to and production of the language.

At present, Ofsted inspections and ILPs are the subject of many MA dissertations, frequently written by unhappy teachers who were curious to learn more about the research behind their profession.

What did these people find? That research has a long and rich history, ranging from psycho- and socio-linguistics to language acquisition. And in all this, there is no mention of ILPs or diagnostic assessments.

In fact, the idea of an ILP has some sense. The student can pinpoint a weak area and try to deal with it. But it is the way ILPs are used that is wrong. For example. look at the curriculum language of an ILP goal: "The student will be able to produce the 's' for third-person singular."

Does this have any effect? It is well-known that fluent speakers of English who have known this rule of English grammar for 40 years are still unable to produce it in speech. ILPs are limiting, not enhancing. Rather than being "smart" and focused on particulars, they should be more general - because learning a language is an organic, holistic experience that touches every point at once. It is the linking up of the brain to a new order of experience.

Yet ILPs are at odds with the brain's natural way of processing. Learners will learn a new point of grammar only when they are ready - when they have reached the stage of "noticing" the new structure for themselves.

For example, you can teach the past perfect until you are blue in the face, but if they are not at the receptive stage for that piece of grammar, they will not acquire it. It would be like forcing 10-year-old boys to find girls of the same age sexy: it won't happen until they reach puberty.

Before that time, it's just pigtail-pulling without knowing why.

No one can confidently tell when a piece of language has been acquired. It may be grasped but not stored, or it may be partially acquired but not fully understood.

In the study of second-language acquisition, the term "inter-language"

refers to the developing language of a learner. It is a kind of language in itself. It is full of errors, but these are mistakes that are a necessary part of learning.

Perhaps the ILP methodology came about from a misinterpretation of Noam Chomsky's "universal grammar", which proposes that the ability to learn a language is already there in the brain - as if it had some kind of internal mechanism to assimilate the language, form its grammatical rules and regurgitate it correctly.

Just as the Soviets misunderstood Karl Marx's ideas, this Government's education policies have twisted current theory and have taken Chomsky's language-acquisition device too literally, creating a nightmare Soviet-worker regime of plans and products.

Chomsky discovered that every utterance has the potential to be new - never before to have been said yet still make good grammatical sense.

ESOL students must be regarded as an exception, then. In future, provided they manage to acquire English through Skills For Life, they will speak in the same way: parrot fashion.

Robert Belcher is an ESOL lecturer at Southwark college, south London

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