20 November 2010

Why is 'research' in ELT/TEFL/TESOL/AL/SLA so irrelevant?

Here is a slight revision of an earlier piece. 

Why is 'research' in ELT/TEFL/TESOL/AL/SLA so irrelevant?

Glossary of terms for those who are not familiar with this field:

AL=Applied Linguistics (most usually the application of some version of linguistics to second or foreign language teaching and learning)
ELT=English Language Teaching
FL=Foreign Language
FLT=Foreign Language Teaching
LL=Language Learning
SLA=Second Language Acquisition
TEFL=Teaching English as a Foreign Language
TESOL=Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages

Why is 'research' in ELT/TEFL/TESOL/AL/SLA so irrelevant?
by Charles Jannuzi, University of Fukui, Japan

While most of the research in support of and about ELT is produced in academia, most actual language teaching and language learning are done outside academia. Even when FLs get taught at universities, the people who often end up with the teaching duties are not in the sort of university posts that are meant for research.

However, I believe the single largest issue is the institutional approach to science and knowledge which falls under the overwhelming intellectual influences of the past half century. In short, research that is supposed to be in support of ELT is largely irrelevant, invalid and not applicable to teaching and learning because of two academic traditions: structuralism and behaviourism.

Structuralism comprises the linguistic framework for much of ELT, and yet structuralism is an historic relic of linguistics. The linguistic 'units' and 'models' and 'key concepts' of ELT are largely based on structuralist ones (and rather simplistic notions of the structuralist concepts at that). This tends to have a stultifying effect on research because it is considered bad form to question or otherwise problematize the inadequacies of ELT's simplistic versions of structuralist concepts.

The other stultifying inheritance is behaviourism (and little surprise then that most structuralists operated under behaviourist assumptions). Most research in academic SLA (an emergent field from AL that has mostly nothing to do with linguistics now, ironically enough), for example, is based on basically behaviourist preconcpetions about how to elicit 'language learning behaviour' (e.g., mastery of a 'form') from a study's subjects. The interpretation of the results (such as they are) become even more muddled because the researchers typically are not clear about whether they are looking for a psychological/psycho-linguistic OR a sociological insight about the particular population they are using as subjects (often without specifying just what population it was that they were supposed to have sampled in doing their research).

Other deficiencies abound and glare out at the teacher attempting to use SLA research to inform teaching: Very small subject groups, lack of clarity over linguistic concepts that are supposed to underlie the research, inappropriate use of statistics (often parametric), un-normed/un-normable populations, etc. If you look at the entire SLA enterprise at a calm distance, it is possible to view it as the following: basically a series of related quasi-experiments that produce mild, often tautological sociological statements (e.g., 30 learners out of a population of 500 million, not normed) about what are supposed to be psycholinguistic insights regarding language learning (did better on grammar-focused tasks after being trained on grammar-focused tasks).

And yet an often-read, automatic defense of such research is that it, unlike qualitative research, is GENERALIZABLE. Which is simply to BEG the question, because such apologists never specify to which population they want to generalize the findings. I would add, however, that I know of absolutely no finding from SLA research that is generalizable to my students, let alone one that generalizes to all of the human race now learning a FL. Moreover, it all gets even more muddled if you go back to the objection over psychological/pscyho-linguistic/cognitive goals vs. sociological ones (in which case, for example, complex differences across cultures, age groups, gender, social class and economic background, etc. become very important).

Most 'research' is done by individuals, groups and networks of people in academic posts. About the only time classroom teachers engage in such activity is when they go back to do a master's or doctoral degree under such academics.

Finally, perhaps the larger issues are the following:

(1) Within a socially delimited field such as 'ELT', what constitutes knowledge and who has the right to claim it as such?

(2) Are experimental and statistical procedures (mostly derived from the field of education's understanding of positivism, empiricism and probability) written up in academic journal studies the most appropriate for developing ELT/FLT and LL in most institutional settings worldwide?

(3) Why does so much institutional ELT/FLT, with its AL and SLA arms, suppress language teachers from sharing research with other language teachers? 

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