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Feb 2019 - Year 21 - Issue 1

ISSN 1755-9715

Embracing Change…Or Not

Lou Spaventa worked as a teacher trainer, writer, editor, and classroom instructor for a very long time, and is now retired, living in sunny Santa Barbara, California, USA.

Life is change, it is said, and well said at that. I see it every day in the mirror. I am balder, rounder, more wrinkled than I was the year before, perhaps even the day before. Two years ago, I met a cousin of mine after not seeing him for forty years. He identified me by my voice. “Plus que ça change” indeed.

But what of my professional self: the one who was most devoted to the new and the novel in language teaching: humanistic pedagogy, The Silent Way, Community Language Learning, Suggestopedia, Freirian theory? How do I stand regarding developments in each of these. Indeed while active in my sixties, I saw others take the educational ball and run with it, Freire in the immigrant classroom, being one example. Then, the fields of TESOL and Applied Linguistics began brachiating ala Spenserian theory: that is to say, once simpler or more transparent phenomena become ever more sophisticated, specialized – that which was homogenous becomes heterogenous. But where I differ with Spenserian thinking is in the outcome of integration. I think, especially in academia, that within, let’s say, language acquisition theory, various elaborations of it have come into conflict quite often, thus producing not an integrated theory, but competing theories. The various individuals once associated with the Chomsky’s position on language acquisition come to mind. What causes the center to be unable to hold? Why such divergence?

I think it has to do with the limited nature of social inquiry. The tools we have are very blunt ones compared to the physical sciences. What comes from this is the inability to duplicate experimental data or the limitations of observer-participant data. The seeming intractability of coming to solid conclusions about phenomena, say the Critical Period Hypothesis, leads to a turning away from a biological investigation of language acquisition, and moves back to the arena it once occupied in social science. I would grant that psychological insights have created a more than surface analysis of linguistic data, but the pendulum did swing away from biological theorizing because of, what I think, is frustration with the blunt tools and  the limits of  inquiry with human subjects. It is clear even from the nomenclature. What is the “forbidden experiment” but frustration with the limits of methodology because of the harm it would do to subjects.

As for myself, besides believing that the theoretical pendulum swings back and forth in the social sciences, I also see that there were definite periods in the history of TESOL and Applied Linguistics. For example, I see the dominance of behavorial psychology as occupying the early post-war period in the U.S. I see Chomsky’s genetically based theory underlying research and application in the period of the 1960s to the late 1980s or so. The former gave birth to methods in teaching emphasizing correct pronunciation, native speaker standards, the oral over the written form of language, the importance of repetition, and the general rise of language laboratories. The latter gave us emphases on mistakes as guideposts, the deep structure of language, mistakes versus errors, and the importance of communication over correctness. I feel that after these two periods the fields of TESOL and Applied Linguistics became commonplace in universities, and thus were molded to the requirements of academic research and study. They have become, for me, too academic. Not risky, nor creative enough.

Was there a golden age of TESOL for me? Yes, I think the mid to late seventies when humanistic methods proliferated. Why do I think this way? Because it fits my general outlook on education and society. Is there likely to be another golden age? No, I think, just like there won’t be another Italian Renaissance. Am I right to think this way? Assuredly not, but it’s hard for me to change. I guess it’s a little like the mystery of my musical history. I was taught by jazz guitarists when I wanted to play rock. All these years later, I am glad I was. I play a lot of jazz, but at the time I hated it. I really didn’t know what was good for me, and I guess, I still am not sure, just like language acquisition researchers. And that might be a good thing.

Things change, and they don’t.

Tagged  Voices 
  • An Education
    Danny Singh, Italy

  • Happy Birthday
    Chaz Pugliese, France

  • Humanising Language Teaching as a Force for Identity Change
    Simon Mumford, Turkey

  • HLT – The Last 20 Years and the Next
    Mike Shreeve, UK

  • From a Simple Request to National Impact
    Claire Özel, Turkey

  • Embracing Change…Or Not
    Lou Spaventa, US

  • Musings on the Topic of Change
    Tessa Woodward, UK