Saturday, January 21, 2006

fear of behaviorism

Chomsky came to prominence at a time, the early 60's, when the world was still reeling from the Holocaust, and they were terrified of B.F. Skinner. Skinner had merely pointed out the obvious: that given the right social conditions, people will do almost anything. That it's all in perception and social conditioning...and this is a very scary thought. But there's at least a grain of truth in it. And when you deal in language, almost everything is perception, social condition, habit development, etc.

Chomsky set us off on a search for the holy grail...assumption of, and search for universal genetic aspects of language. How this turned into a search for "universal restrictions" I have no idea. There aren't any universal restrictions; why would there be? We aren't made to NOT do stuff. We can, in fact, do anything, especially with regard to language, and if you look hard enough, you'll find that almost everything has been done by some language somewhere.

When Krashen came along, teachers lined up right behind him, especially when he talked about acquisition vs. learning. We've seen it so much: students learn things, but then they can't use them. They don't truly acquire them until later. But acquisitionists hate Krashen: how can you prove what's acquired vs. what's learned? Because it's so hard to prove, they tend to think Krashen is a screwball.

I say, take another look at it. There's got to be a way to show that someone has acquired something...that is, that they can use it habitually or when I realize that, by mentioning the bad word, "habit," I recall the big B.F., and that's a no-no, but hey, maybe after all these years we can face the facts. When you're dealing with learning languages, what you're doing is looking at how your mind stores information, the habits and assumptions it has made based on what you have learned so far, and your success is based upon your ability to condition yourself to a new set of assumptions. Behaviorism can be very useful to us here.

I'm not saying there are no genetic components to language learning (though there may be no device, as Krashen would call it...). All I'm saying is that the world's fear of Skinner and what he reminded us of has kept us from really looking at the key elements of success in language learning. If we think people are born competent and that things are going to just take care of themselves...well, I don't think so. There's enough English on the web so that if that were the case, I'd be out of a job.

More later...comments?


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