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A METHODOLOGY OF ENGLISH LANGUAGE LEARNING BASED ON THE THEORY OF ARGUMENTATION

Gergana Apostolova

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This paper aims at the presentation of a culturally compatible approach to English language learning which I have chosen to call “argumentative” since it has been derived from the basic notions of the theory of argumentation developed in the beginning of the 1960s as a revival of Aristotle’s ideas concerning the emotive nature, ethics and logic of public communication.1

This theory is rooted in the complex view of communication as a field where natural logic is displayed by the means of the natural languages reaching to consensus which is altogether a process going beyond mere logical demonstration due to its employment of practical and not rarely - fallacious reasoning. The complexity of the general theoretical grounds of the theory of argumentation allows a close passage into the field of cognitive studies, which form a sound philosophical base for modern linguistics allowing new approaches to the current language practices. On the other hand the focus of the theory of argumentation is on persuasion or rather conviction and in the latter two it possesses methodological instrumentaria for motivation and re-motivation. These two features (natural logic expressed in natural language, and the instrumental nature of persuasion and conviction) - applicable to the current language practice rooted in cognitivism, and to the methodological mechanisms for motivation - make it possible to build a related approach to ELL which is expected to keep pace with the present day theories of the human mind while at the same time is capable of providing an efficient methodology for language learning.

I have been working on this idea since 1990 on all levels of theory and practice, since I have been teaching English for various purposes and uses to people aged from 7 to 70. The groups include state-school classes from the first to the twelfth grade, private students from complete beginners for children to SAT and proficiency classes, and from complete beginners of adults to computer-based systems and ESP for economists, lawyers, and physicians. I have also taught English to university students from the first year to the MA grade majoring in the subjects of Bulgarian Philology, History, Public Relations, Pedagogy, English Philology and Applied linguistics. (The latter two also involve lectures in English Literature, Theory and practice of Translation, Stylistics and Theoretical Linguistics). All this experience has been sought for throughout the years and analyzed, to be performed to the best practical effect. I have also had the chance (as we all have) to observe the transformation of our mass culture from predominantly east-oriented to desirably west-oriented. This made me change the outlines of the proposed argumentative approach, yet I am still using this name since its core has remained steady. Its essence lies in the treatment of education as specific type of communication where brain structures are being reconstructed within a new language environment by means of conscious and unconscious, logical and emotive, ethical and manipulative methods and tools.

My philosophical background has always urged me to treat a human being as one having the right of free choice, and, consequently to treat a national culture - as one having the right to exist in relevant forms within the varied texture of global culture.

In the present age of worldwide spread of the English language and the unification of the European culture throughout common business, concurrent governmental policies, educational and institutional exchange, international projects in all spheres of life, tourism, converging lifestyles, and not in the least - internet communication - in this age it is very difficult to establish, present properly and make universal the field and the products of a national culture. This is not only a problem of the smaller national cultures like ours or the Scottish, or the Norwegian, but also of such affluent cultures as the French and German speaking ones. The common field of the English-communicating world should not be made foreign to us, but it is to be treated as an invitation and a challenge to do our best and “export” our milleniums-old cultural values and our established educational practices and attitudes which have proven efficient by far.

Our search for a compatible cross-cultural approach to foreign language learning within the context of the introduction of a common European credit system has begun from the contrastive study of the now existing basic approaches. The result can be seen from the following table2:

Approach to ell

Theory of the nature of language

Theoretical grounds of language learning

The oral approach and situational language teaching British structuralism

Behaviorism

The audio-linguistic method Structural linguistics

Behaviorism

Communicative teaching

Communicative theory (an opposition to chomsky's theory of competence)

Communicative principles for second language learning

General physical reaction

Psychological theory of traces

Verbal stimulation of behaviour

The silent way

Structuralism

Infant learning

Community language learning

Basic sound and grammatical patterns

Holism

The natural approach

Lexical

Theories of Comprehension

Suggestopedia

Psychology of the irrational and the unconscious memory

Suggestion

Firstly, it is clear that reasoning is somehow excluded from this table and all methodologies are based rather on reaching to our unconscious than involving our conscious. Since language is a means of communication of reasoning creatures this exclusion of the analytical skills of the individual hints of possibilities for manipulation and limitations of the freedom of the language learner.

Secondly, it is clear that something bigger than the individual freedom is also lacking, and this is the opportunity for the existence of the native culture as an equal formative agent for the learner’s language realization in the foreign language environment. The learner is in the role of an outsider who has to make the necessary steps to be let into the grounds of English. Entering upon an entirely foreign notional ground the learner leaves behind his or her former personal motivation and adopts a new individuality in a foreign cultural environment.

Adopting the principle that education, being an element of human culture, reaches far beyond the current institutional interests and policies, I have tried to construct an efficient methodology following the axis awareness - motivation which come to represent the logical and the emotive aspects of the human mind both on the levels of the conscious and the subconscious. The final goal is to set the individual’s mind working in its full capacity until it acquires an original public expression in the new language environment.

The psychological and physiological grounds to this approach are based on the assumptions that the human brain is fully developed physiologically by the age of 4, while the practice of the mother tongue usage has created a capacity of language abstraction extendable into new language introduction viewed as mere upgrading of the existing language competence. The latter can be carried out as building parallel structures or adding entirely novel structures in that parts of the human mind which are focused on communication. The most suitable age for the initial application of the argumentative approach in its complete form is between 8 and 10 when the learner’s skills involve also a greater capability for concentration and writing.

Consequently, I claim that ELL based on awareness of language conventions (explanations of the rules of language use, grammar and proposition) could start efficiently at the age of 8 for the public education system. Individual tuition, however, can be parallel to the mother tongue development and is based on the natural endowment for using communication code. Thus the acquisition of the new language is not seen as another language acquisition but as an extension into the capacity of mastering a broader and more flexible system for encoding and sharing information about the surrounding reality (which for a child always novel - a series of ventures into social life with not very well specified time and space).

The educational practices in the Bulgarian state school so far have also involved approaches meeting a number of cultural features which do not allow ungrounded instruction: the freedom in the communication habits, the natural intelligence of the children unspoilt yet by the limitations and fears of social life, the classical curricula introducing broad and varied information, and last but not least - the lack of totalitarian state ideology - all these and some minor factors form the cultural grounds for adopting an argumentative approach to ELL.

A learner of a foreign language has to adopt not merely different language signs but the whole cultural background of the learned language. The cultural schemes of the mother tongue and the foreign language interact with one another and the learning individual often needs motivation to accept a different cultural scheme which his brain naturally rejects. Accepting the foreign language thus can be compared with a political debate aiming at consensus.

Such position inevitably falls into contradiction with a traditional view of the tasks of philological education, started by Comenii, who wrote in his Magna Didactica (1657: Foreign language training, §13)3 that the rules of a language should be grammatical and not philosophical for the deep inquiry into the reasons and nature, similarities, analogy, diversity, connections and incorrectness of words and sentences are the work of the philosopher and an ‘obstacle for the philologist’. This is an educational tradition which contradicts the very nature of language which makes things common, shared by containing in its means of expression all aspects of human existence.

It is curious how in our present day the modern views of language and communication, of culture and human mind have missed to affect that postulate and philologists who happen to become educators dare not ask the question ‘why’ and refuse to answer the ‘why’ of their students, which in most cases is not meant to establish the deep roots of a language unit but rather to seek conviction about the necessity of learning it.

Such understanding is very close in nature to what Chomsky defined as a kind of theory of ‘human nature’ based on ‘an appropriate framework within which the study of language may prove to have more general intellectual interest’ and where language is ‘a mirror of the mind’, ‘a product of human intelligence, created anew in each individual by operations that lie far beyond the reach of will or consciousness’ .4

Translated to be applied into a multicultural context this leads inevitably to the uses of the international English as a means of opening doors to the human intellect bound otherwise to the smaller fields of operation of the national languages. The uses of an argumentative approach can be found after we have taken in mind the whole range of crosscultural possibilities for realization of the English language speaker: at the moment when pragmatic imperatives direct the choices of the learners and their motivation sets natural limitation to their effort. No one starts learning English for the sake of English but one can start doing it after having entered upon the deepest and most tempting grounds of the finest language levels. Yet, a mere imitation without encouraging the building of awareness of the lexical units included in a set expression, or the logic of a structure, is a violation of the standards of human mind trying to make two cultural matrices compatible without losing its own existential motivation.

The analytical part of this approach is focused on such basic notions as: awareness, motivation, agreement, convincing, intention, acceptability, argumentative network, relevance, communicative behavior, situational context and cultural context. In that it reaches as far as the fields of modern psychology, psycho-linguistics, socio-linguistics and the cultural studies of language. An approach based on the theory of argumentation inevitably falls in the field of comparative pragmatics.

Structurally the argumentative learning undergoes the following stages:

I. Explication of the intention of the proposed course of studies and making sure that the participants are aware of its goals, nature, methodology and practices properly translated into an optimum total of their subjective experience, interests and plans. The initial phase of a language course also involves a procedure of what I have chosen to call here A-motivation i.e. the formation of vivid picture of the expected achievement in terms of self-projection both at the levels of the group and of the individual students.

II. Developing the form as a multi-layer packet of tasks which might vary according to the learning situation.

III. Building up the learning reality or motivation of the learners by the teacher through advertising, emotional stimulation, explanation, demonstration, free talk, associative talk, formation of models, starting a competition; personal involvement etc. until complete trust is acquired.

IV. Argumentation or defending each step in the course of study by means of problem-solving, involvement, debate, proof and convincing leading each of the participants through a process of individual experience.

V. Information processing - learning proper through repetition in a variety of forms, and production liable to checking and marking.

VI. Revision of intention i.e. setting individual goals depending on the output by far.

VII. Achieving awareness of the language rules and usage at the studied level;

VIII. Re-motivation through pure learning involvement and scientific explanation.

IX. Passing on to a new level of information.

The stages where the argumentative approach is most efficient are those of complete beginners, preparation for an interview, PR practitioners, and the training of bilingual specialists - high quality experts in various fields, teachers of English, translators and interpreters. The levels where the argumentative approach doesn’t work are elementary and pre-intermediate. It is probably due to the nature of these courses which are designed to pile language information and form automatic skills before passing to the next level of awareness and motivation. Therefore I have adopted the practice of avoiding them by the procedures of intensification and replay: the beginners’ course reaches as far as the end of the pre-intermediate in an intensified period of 50 to 60 classes where the units of a textbook (working with the textbook takes one class at a time) are supported by an additional class of word-study in a self-projection pattern drawing on involvement of imagination and employment of desire. There is also another class of building grammatical awareness drawing on building a coherent picture of the language compatible to the thinking and experience of the participants e.g. by using parallel mathematical or physical or economic abstraction for illustration. (Once a TV technician drew a scheme of the main pronunciation rules resembling an electronic plate of configuration).

The very process of intensification relies on two premises: 1) during the first month of study the group is under the influence of the initial motivation and the spirit of novelty - it is like traveling into an unexplored world where everything is interesting; 2) enthusiasm begins to wane and mental exhaustion takes over at about the end of the first third of the course or at the beginning of the second month. Keeping in mind these two things, by the end of the first month we have already thoroughly introduced the Present Simple Tense which is the most difficult one to be accepted by our students, and we also have sufficient thematic vocabulary. Now we pass on to the Present Continuous Tense which is the easiest to accept - the group feels confident in their abilities and is ready to start production exercises involving both statements about their permanent status and describing the current situation.

The second course passes on to the Intermediate level (a change of the system is recommendable) which broadens the cultural contexts and builds on the vocabulary. It is supported by a workbook of the pre-intermediate level (the same system as the beginners’) where they feel confident. At this level translation of short unadapted texts can start. The length of the course is 100-120 classes.

The Upper intermediate level introduces complex structure and expository writing of simple statements with clear structure and explicated coherent devices. Translation can go on to one-page difficult texts while reading comprehension moves on to 2-page difficult texts. Listening, however is fixed at the studied level. The length of the course is 100-120 classes.

After that level specific training can be intensified depending on the purpose of the course taking from 60 to 200 classes.

The described procedure is applicable to serve the needs of university education where the levels and interests are clearly defined.

At the present stage of university education the further development of this approach completely agrees with the adoption of the credit system for transfer of students viewed as a means for intercultural compatibility; as a form of checking and reporting the educational processes and outcome; and as a methodological complex combining theoretical discussion and analysis with acquiring knowledge of certain units and developing practical skills.

A credit system is built around the notions of non-discriminate communication: there is the initial instruction, there is the supply of basic sources, the dialog is the vehicle of academic exchange - interactive lectures, seminars, conferences, project work - educational environment extending outside the premises of the university into the entire field of the individual experience. In this environment the professor is the instructor, the auditor, the supervisor, the assistant, the main source of information, the model learner, the conference manager, the original interpreter - the authority giving security, and the challenger to venture something new.

The university undergraduates majoring in the field of English Philology are in the interlanguage zone of our national culture and the English speaking cultures. However the subject of English Philology is not the same as British and American studies. It is much more in that it carries out an intercultural education where it needs to present and interpret English speaking cultures from the point of view, in our concrete case, of a Bulgarian learner and in pragmatic agreement with the opportunities of our specific socio-economic reality and possible ways for realization of these students. Our students learn English in comparison with other languages; they study the cultural histories of Great Britain and the USA comparing them with our national cultural history and looking for points of compatibility. We also teach them how to translate and interpret keeping in mind the responsibilities of a professional translator concerning the language purity, the social and moral laws, and the employer.

All this demands hard work in the intercultural field. The learner of English from our point of view is not simply a further disseminator of the English language but a mediator of cultures.

To this purpose the student of English is supposed to acquire a certain level of knowledge and skills in the fields of source and target language competence and comparative linguistics, cultural studies, moral philosophy, modern psychology, public relations, administration, computing, communication devices, pop-culture, education. The highest goals of the above complex reach as far as expertise and creativity. There should not be any barriers to academism besides the limitations of practice. And this is both the starting point and the general point of the proposed approach: reaching an agreement between studies, personal development and practical realization. It is a constant process of readjustment of the individual’s motivation.

The mechanisms and the instruments for the application of the offered approach are taken from the rich field of the educational tradition. They, however, should be carefully chosen and arranged so as not to discriminate the participants in the learning process. Learning English in our native country means to overcome the national speaking environment starting our motivation from the points of cultural compatibility understood as duplex process of cultural input and output drawing on the means of the bigger language.

 

 

NOTES

1. The main schools in the late 20th century are those of H. Johnstone at the University of Pennsylvania, the Brussels school of Ch. Perelman, and the Erevan school of Brutyan. Separate aspects of this theory have been developed outside these schools e.g. concerning logical fallacies or argumentation in jurisprudence etc.

See: Perelman, Ch., Olbrechts-Tyteca, L. The New Rhetoric, A Treatise on Argument, 1968; Brytyan. Argumentation. Erevan (in Russian), 1984; Johnstone, H. W. Truth, Anagnorisis and Argument. // Philosophy and Rhetoric, 1983, Vol. 24, № 1.

I have explicated the complex nature of argumentation carried out in natural language in Apostolova, G., Persuasive Discourse. Sofia, 1999, p. 14. [back]

2. This table is based on Richards J. C. and T. S. Rodgers. Approaches and Methods to Language Teaching. Sofia: Prosveta, 1992. [back]

3. Comenii. Magna Didactica (1657: Foreign language training, §13) - summarized from the Bulgarian edition. [back]

4. Chomsky, N. Reflections on Language. 1st ed. London, 1976, pp. 3-4. [back]

 

 

© Gergana Apostolova
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© E-magazine LiterNet, 14.03.2005, № 3 (64)