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While planning a talk about "What in the World Is Going On in TEFL?" we included as part of our preparation a perusal of the articles slated for this issue, since most issues of the FORUM (excepting those built around a particular theme) tend to give some insight into what teachers in a dozen or so countries on several continents are actually doing in their English classes.
As we looked through the pile of printer's galleys of the articles, and skimmed each one, we wondered to what extent, if any, this compilation might reflect an identifiable tendency or change of emphasis in the field, or, perhaps, simply a continuation of some timeless effort for improvement; also, what relationship individual articles might have to one another. Such a relationship, experience has led us to anticipate, might not be evident at all; and if it is, the articles might be found to be mutually supportive or, on the other hand, quite antithetical.
Perhaps the expectation of any or all of these three possibilities is itself an indication of "what in the world in going on in TEFL." It is interesting to note that at this time in the history of our profession, unlike some other periods in its recent evolution, different-even opposing-theories and practices are being brought forward without stridency or the raising of voices. There is such a quiet sanity about the way the new ideas are being put forward-in contrast to the brazen boasts of the recent past—that it might seem as if no new thinking is going on. We believe that the opposite is true, that such caution as accompanies many of the pronouncements being made about possible advances in theory and practice is a sign not so much of tentativeness or inactivity as of maturity.
To get back to the perusal of this issue's articles, here is something of what we found as we leafed through the galleys: Virginia Allen's piece on the passive brought to mind once again her characteristic ability to question constructively and penetratingly some traditionally accepted practice or assumption, to help us see in a new and clearer light some facet of our subject matter in a way that may not only help us teach it better, but which may also kindle in us the kind of mental activity that her work illus
trates: to take a new look" at some old "facts" in a way that can lead to sounder conclus ions about the structure and meaning of English..
Next, an article from Gerrnany asked the question "How can advanced-level students be helped from limited, informational language use to flexible, informal language use?"-a continuing area of concern for so many teachers in this field. From Panama, an innovative technique for helping students express themselves in writing at an early stage. From Greece, an appealing way to teach literature to junior- . high-school students through a thematic unit on "growing up." Then, a comprehensive look at the question of helping the unsuccessful language learner, offering no easy panaceas but a well-ordered presentation of ideas which the thoughtful and compassionate teacher may be able to translate into action in seeking first to understand, and then to help, the student who finds the going hard. From Saudi Arabia, a brief, straightforward presentation of short forms of words often used in English, classified in a way that strikes us as original and useful. From Zaire and Turkey, two very different articles on teaching vocabulary, which remind us of the rich diversity of our worldwide contributions. An article from Kuwait, which, as we "read between the lines," brings to mind the kind of behind-the-scenes preparation that characterizes the dedicated and successful teacher, and may even, in any teaching situation, outweigh the particular method or technique used.
Two articles on storytelling—from Japan and England—again quite different in approach, have a special appeal for us, perhaps because of a personal bias. It seems to us that much more can, and probably should, be done along such lines, not only in teaching children, but more especially in teaching teenagers and adults. Our interest in this kind of activity relates not only to our own experience in language learning and teaching, but also to some recent work in language acquisition, listening comprehension, and the role of attention in language learning. But these latter subjects are matter for a subsequent column.
Helping the Unsuccessful Language Learner
Can our knowledge of the successful language learner aid the unsuccessful language learner? In order to answer this question, we must first establish what constitutes a successful language learner and, second, determine what strategies and techniques the successful language learner employs. A review of research concerning this subject was undertaken by Cohen.' Rubin has made a substantial contribution to the field.? Hamaya and colleagues have done research on affective factors and language exposure in second-language learning.
A student learning a new language faces three major problems or dilemmas, according to Stern." Briefly stated, they are: (1) the problem of dominance of the first language as reference system as opposed to the new underdeveloped reference system; (2) the problem of having to pay attention simultaneously to linguistic forms and communication—a psychological impossibility; (3) the problem of having to choose between rational and intuitive learning. The student's ability to handle each of these problems will determine success or failure and the way “he copes (with these dilemmas) distinguishes the good from the poor learner” (p. 310). In addition to the three problems mentioned by Stern, the student must also face the overall dichotomy of the desire to communicate vs. the frustration and stress of the inability to do so. Even the successful language learner, when faced with living in the target country, undergoes "culture shock.”
What type of personality is able to deal effectively with both culture shock and the three learning dilemmas germane to second language acquisition? Some research has been done concerning personality variables dent's personality from timid to assertive or from apathetic to adventurous. Nevertheless, we can use several approaches. We can familiarize ourselves with the potential, interests, and aspirations of our students so that, with proper pacing and a series of carefully structured activities, all can experience a measure of success. We can create a non-threatening classroom climate in which unassertive students feel comfortable and where they are encouraged to succeed in an atmosphere of comradeship and understanding. In addition, in order to avoid false expectations, we can give our students an explanation of the process of language learning.
“Helping the Unsuccessful Language Learner," first appeared in Modern Language Journal, Volume 65. Summer 1981 (0 1981 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System), pp. 121-28. Rcprinted with permission.
1. Andrew Cohen, "Successful Second-Language Spcakers: A Rcview of Research Literature." Balshanut Shimoshit: The Journal of the Israel Association of Applied Linguistics, 1 (Spring 1977). pp. 2–20.
2. Joan Rubin, "What thc 'Good Language Lcarncr Can Teach Us," TESOL Quarterly. 9, I (1975), pp.41-51.
3. Else Hamayan, Fred Genesee and G. Richard Tucker, "Affective Factors and Language Exposure in Second Language Learning." Lunguage Learning, 27 (1977), pp. 225–39.
4. H.H. Stern. "What Can We Lcarn from the Good Language Learner?" Canadian Modern Language Review, 31 (1975), pp. 301
of successful language learners. However, as yet the data are limited and, in many instances, inconclusive. Nevertheless, certain traits have been studied and found to have significant correlation with successful language learning. Naiman and colleagues concluded that tolerance of ambiguity, which here means the capacity to cope with novelty, complexity, and insolubility, did correlate significantly—at least with listening comprehension. When testing for extroversion, however, these researchers were confronted with inconclusive data. Their own measure did not correlate significantly with criterion measures, yet direct observation seemed to indicate that good language learners are apt to be extroverts. Other researchers considered four factors relevant to successful language learning-assertiveness, emotional stability (self-control), adventuresomeness, and conscientiousness. They combined these four traits into a single factor, adventuresomeness, and found that this was indeed a factor for predicting success in language learning. All but conscientiousness are associated with extroversion.
Empathy is another personality trait that received some inquiry. The results here again are inconclusive; Guiora concluded that empathy may at least be related to pronunciation accuracy. Another variable is what Oskarsson calls “deliberateness,” which refers to the degree of spontaneity and impulsiveness in a person's reactions. His data suggest that a "certain degree of spontaneity and impulsiveness is advantageous to the attainment of good language.scores."
Personality variables doubtless pose the greatest complexities in language learning. Much research still needs to be done before we can say categorically that the successful language learner exhibits certain personality traits. With the limited data available we can only postulate that successful language learners are more likely than their unsuccessful counterparts to tolerate ambiguity and that the former are often more assertive than the latter.
What can we, as language teachers, do to help less. successful learners? Obviously, our aim is not to change student's psychological profile. We cannot change a stu
When researching cognitive-style variables, Naiman found that successful language learners exhibited “field independence." The field-independent student distinguishes relevant from irrelevant information, is likely to focus on stimuli relevant to the task, and is therefore unlikely to be distracted by extraneous information. Field independence was also found to correlate highly with achievement in a study done by Tucker and others. However, according to Bialystok, “field independence was not a strong predictor of achievement in a second language at least for measures of reading comprehension."7
Are there ways in which teachers can help poor language learners achieve at least some field independence? Some work has already been done in this area by Omaggio and Birckbichler. They list many useful activities which can help the student become field independent: writing resumés, creating titles, segmenting, cloze adaptation, etc.
A second cognitive variable studied by Naiman's group was category width, i.e., overgeneralization vs. narrow categorization. The study was undertaken with the expectation that the successful language learner would generalize neither too much nor too little. Data were inconclusive, but Powell and Taylor did find that learners who tended to overgeneralize were more successful.' Taylor found that “with increased proficiency in the target language they (students) rely proportionately less frequently on their native grammar and rely more frequently on their ever-increasing knowledge of
5. N. Naiman, Maria Frölich, H.H. Stern and A. Todesco, The Good Language Learner (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1978); G. Richard Tucker, Else Hamayan and Fred Genesce, “Affective, Cognitive and Social Factors in Second Language Acquisition," Canadian Modern Language Review, 23 (1976), pp. 214– 26; Alexander Z. Guiora, Maria Puluszny, Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, John C. Catford, Ralph E. Cooley and Cecelia D. Yoder Dull, “Language and Person Studies in Language Behavior," Language Learning, 25 (1975), pp.43-61; John H. Schumann, “Affective Factors and the Problem of Age in Second Language Acquisition," Language Learning, 25 (1975), pp. 209–35.
7. Ellen Bialystok and Maria Frölich, “Aspects of Second Language Learning in Classroom Settings," Working Papers on Bilingualism, 13 (1977), p. 17.
8. Alice Omaggio and Diane Birckbichler, “Diagnosing and Responding to Individual Learner Needs," Modern Language Journal 62 (1978), pp. 336-45.
9. Patricia B. Powell, “An Investigation of Selected Syntactical and Morphological Structures in the Conversation of Secondary Students after Two Years' Study of French," Diss. Ohio State Univ., 1973; Barry P. Taylor, “The Use of Overgeneralization and Transfer Learning Strategies by Elementary and Intermediate Students in ESL," Language Learning, 25 (1975), pp. 73-107.
6. Mats Oskarsson, "The Relationship Between Foreign Language Proficiency and Various Psychological Variables." Paper read at Fourth International Congress of Applied Linguistics (Stuttgart, August 1975), p. 10.