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Language Emergence, Gesture and Interaction: the Methodological Imperative and Reinventing the Wheel

1. The Diminishing of Classical Cognitivism

Cognitivism has been a major theoretical framework for organising the data of applied linguistics. By ‘classical’ cognitivism I will understand the model that is traced to Chomsky and developed by authors like Krashen and Long, which states roughly that language acquisition is the product of adequate comprehensible linguistic input. This basic model is further elaborated to include more variables required for acquisition to take place. For example, Schumann raised serious questions about the adequacy of the cognitivist model in the 1970s and proposed social variables as causal. Subsequently, these social variables were found to be difficult to measure and Schumann moved on to consider motivational and interactive factors and their neurobiological bases. More recently, approaches drawn from parallel distributed processing models have suggested a way of conceptualing a language emergence model that might account for the lack of linearity observed in language development.

The problem with these alternative approaches is that they do not really offer an alternative to classical cognitivist theory. If we consider the matter historically, cognitivist theory itself replaced earlier approaches such as behaviourism, which replaced even earlier approaches. Since the history of psychology is a sketchy subject that is known to relatively few in psychology and linguistics it is correspondigly little known what theories of language and its psychology were replaced by behaviourism. However, we can posit that a major reason for the move to behaviourism and then to cognitivism was precisely that they offered, or promised at any rate, the sort of relatively simple and predictive explanations of behaviour and competence. Cognitivism is effectively a meta-theory for generating psychological explanations that conform to the model of scientific explanation developed by logical positivim, that is, the hypothetico-deductive method.

Viewing the matter from this perspective, cognitivism gains explanatory power when it can explain a wide range of complex phenomena in terms of relatively few variables and causal laws. Behaviourism offered to explain all competence in terms of stimulus-response and laws of reinforcement. Its success or failure rested on its ability to carry out this reduction, that is, to explain all the behavioural complexity in terms of simple laws of conditioning. Chomsky argued that this is reduction is not feasible and that we need to posit a functional architecture whereby the system takes in inputs and carries out computational operations to arrive at a competence conceived as the knowledge of rules. Connectionist or parallel distributed processing models fit within the cognitivist framework but they posit that they underlying processes are non-linear, that is, we cannot expect predictable results given a set of inputs because of the distributed nature of the processing. There has always been a question whether such models can be reconciled with the classical cognitivist scheme (Fodor 1983), or whether they are in effect giving the game away, that is, the project of predicting output given input.

We can assume that a cognitive model constitutes progress when some phenomnon, such as learning a language or some part of language, is reduced to some identifiable skill that is a funtion of specifiable inputs, and that is generalisable. In other words, it cannot be  that we can find some effect generated under laboratory conditions which is no way generalisation outside of the labortory. Thus, while certain psychological effects such as the size of short term memory being 7 plus or minus 2 is established as being universal, it is questionable whether psychological phenomena generalise beyond the groups of ‘subjects’ that they are tested on, these typically being an undergraduate student in an
Anglophone university, which is not a truly random population. In other words, it is arguable that psychological and linguistic research can conform to the experimental framework only by narrowing down the sample and also by framing its hypotheses in ways that are not generalisable. Furthermore, this only comes up in fields like applied linguistics where application in the classroom across culturally diverse student populations is inevitable and raises the question whether, as the number of variables increases to account for the real-world phnomena which are unavoidable in the field, the cognitivist model is watered down and diminished to the point whereby it is questionable whether the whole cognitivist framework in its entirety should not be seriously questioned.

The promise and attraction of cognitivism was precisely simplicity and predictability, because these features offered the desirata of the theories of psychology as natural science. As the model adds more variables and its predictions become ever more narrow in scope, thus failing to generalise, the question we must ask is why retain the model at all? The answer to this question is precisely the desire to retain the status of science, and this basic motivation imposes what Danziger has called the ‘methodological imperative’ of psychological theories generally, namely, the requirement that such theories resemble in certain respects the methods and explanations characteristic of the methods and explanations in the natural sciences. In other words, the positivist philosophy of science has postulated that natural sciences employ the hypothetico-deductive method and that for psychology and the social sciences to attain the status of science at all their statements must conform to this conception of the logic of explanation.

Within this framework, as developed by Krashen, language acquisition takes place as a consequence of adequate comprehensible input and low affect filter. This in turn has been a development of Chomskyan idea of an innate universal grammar. A number of arguments currently considered in applied linguistics signal a shift away from the orthodoxy of Chomskyan cognitivism, eg., the idea of language acquisition as the unfolding of an innate grammar elicited by external input. Thus, some major figures in the field have been expressing scepticism that the cognitivist framework is able to produce the promised predictive variables. As a consequence, alternative models are now being explored, signalling a diminishing in the role of the putative cognitive processes. Ideas that have been explored include the role of social proximity (Schumann), interaction, gesture (Schumann), and emergence (Larsen-Freeman) in the search for (a) what is innate, and (b) the causal factors in language acquisition. This is interesting because it raises the question whether the field has attained the status of normal science. Cognitivism provided for theoretical stability and offered the promise of a predictive framework, and the question is whether these develoments signal a phase of abnormal science and paradigm shift.

While this appears to signal a paradigm shift there are two respects in which it is not. First, it seems to be more of a movement back in history in that the approaches being considered closely resemble pre-Chomskyan approaches so that we might be really dealing with a re-consideration of approaches that Chomskyan nativism displaced. Second, nonetheless, the way in which these earlier approaches are being reconsidered is in a sense Chomskyan in that background philosophy of science of these earlier approaches is replaced with the positivism that characterises cognitivism. In that sense we can be said to be dealing with a new synthesis.

Pre-Chomskyan approaches were non-positivist and developed their ideas about language and psychology in within a non-positivist framework. Positivism and the search for causal explanations in the social sciences has generated behaviourism and subsequently cognitivism. The inability of cognitivist theory to be predictive in the required ways has led to the reconsideration of these earlier ideas but without abandoning the positivistic philosophy, that is, the idea that we are searching for explanations of a certain sort.

Kurt Danziger (ref) has called this the ‘methodological imperative’ in psychology. It is the imperative, motivated by the desire to attain the status of ‘science’, that theories and explanations in disciplines like psychology and applied linguistics take a particular form that resembles the form of the natural and experimental sciences, that is, they should seek to provide causal explanations and utilise quantitative research methods. From this perspective, while the pre-Chomskyan approaches may have generated some useful ideas, they lack the status of scientific explanations because they appear speculative and a priori, and in that sense are pre-scientific and philosophical.

As Danziger points out, in order to render ideas scientific they need to be reworked and elborated such that they ‘fit’ into a particular methodological framework. The question raised by Danziger et al is whether this is legitimate, that is, whether the objects of inquiry ought to be augmented to fit the methodology, or whether methodology should be adapted to the objects. The alternative view is that when these phenomena are augmented to fit the methodology the original theory or object is no longer recognizable. Privileging methodology over the object means that the object and the form of explanation are fundamentally altered.

The implication here is that pre-Chomskyan approaches are not merely philosophical precursors to the final stage of rendring them scientific, but actually provide an alternative view of science to the positivistic reduction. On this view, the idea of science as generating predictive hypotheses will never generate an approach that is adequate to the object, and such explanations inevitably generate reductions that eliminate too much from the object to render these explanations adequate to the object under investigation. In other words, if we reduce enough predictions can be generated, but in achieving the desired predictions we have hollowed out the object beyond recognition and rendered our explanations inapplicable outside of the narrow, decontextualised laboratory conditions.

The pre-Chomskyan view, most commonly associated with Wilhelm Dilthey but held widely in 19th and early 20th century German academic world (Farr), is that the human sciences deal with phenomena that are too complex to be amenable to the techniques of the natural sciences (Makkreel), and so a different set of scientific methods must be developed. In other words, these approaches were developed specifically in reaction against positivism and the generalisation of the methods of the natural sciences to the human sciences. So in order to compare and evaluate these pre-Chomskay, pre-positivist approaches vis a vis their recent reincarnation we need to have some conception of the basic conception of the mode of inquiry appropriate to the human and social sciences.

2. The Methodological Imperative in Applied Linguistics

The methodological imperative means that the objects of psychology have to be elaborated or reshaped so as to fit the methodology rather than the other way around. In other words, the methodology forms the limiting factor and the objects of psychology need to be elaborated to fit that rather than the methodology being adapted to the objects (Danziger, …). Thus, psychological and linguistic theories that do not fit the methodological requirements are reformulated or reconstructed to do so. The assumption must be that as they stand these theories are inadequate. However, the question is raised whether the reconstruction does not render the objects or the theories unrecognisable (Danziger, …).

We can see this process in applied linguistics in the attempts to formulate alaternative approaches to classical cognitivism that appear to visit pre-Chomskyan, social, ecological and evolutionary, approaches to linguistics. However, in doing so they reconstruct these early approaches in precisely the positivist framework that was not only absent in these early approaches, but when we look at their history were self-consciously opposed to positivism. It is arguable that this actually reflects the general trend in later 20th century analytic philosophy, and cognitive and social sciences, namely, to produce constructs that are amenable to the sort of inquiry characteristic of positivist science.

Thus, in the case of applied linguistics, at each stage of critique of classical cognitivism the alternatives considered are framed in term of causal factors and predictive hypotheses. The idea of language emergence seems to have given the game away but not quite, for it offers predictability at the microlevel. Yet this is in effect giving the game away because the anti-positivist approaches accepted that there is a level of local, narrowly circumscribed responsiveness at which behaviour can be predicted (Makkreel on Dilthey). However, in order to make psychological generalisations the view was that we need to dispense with the idea of causal explanations, and instead offered accounts which were environmental, evolutionary, developmental and process-oriented. But such accounts, while they may allow for quantiative studies, are not committed to the sort of methodology characteristic of positivist science, but rather select and adapt methodology to the phenomena in question. This puts into question the entire program of elaborating and recontructing the objects of the cognitive sciences.


The idea of language emergence offers a choice. We can continue with the assumption that we are doing natural science and abide by the methodological imperatives of positivism. Alternatively, we can accept that at best we can find regularities but not predictive laws, and that these regularities will be a function of local affordances, and that therefore we must accept that in language learning and language teaching there are no psychological laws but understanding and expertise that has the form of Gestalts rather than deterministic rules. This fundamentally affects how we approach linguistic research and our commitment to a scientistic conception of psychology constrained by the methodological imperative. It might also lead us to reconsider the pre-Chomskyan approaches to psychology and linguistics.



Fundamentals of Phenomenology for Educational Psychology and Applied Linguistics

What is the phenomenological model and how does it differ from broadly cognitive approaches in psychology and linguistics?

First we need to define what we mean by a ‘cognitive’ approach. Cognitive approaches in disciplines such as psychology and linguistics emerged in reaction to behavioristic psychology. Whereas behaviourism viewed behaviour as a function of determinate stimulus conditions, cognitivist theory asserted that in order to predict the response or learned competence we must posit a rich internal architecture whereby the system is conceived as interpreting the stimulus and then processing this information to generate the appropriate output. This conception resembles the classical Cartesian model of the mind as a thinking self that interprets the data of the senses in terms of its innate capacities for conceptualisation, but allows for non-conscious mental processes, divorcing the notion of cognition from the notion of consciousness. As a result, the conception of non-cognitive processes cannot be in terms of non-conscious, but rather in terms of processes which are directly tied to the stimulus conditions.

Phenomenological research can be viewed as starting out with a critique of the Cartesian model which conceives of the self as a detached observer looking in an objectifying and disengaged way on the external world, as well as self-reflectively on its own mental operations. Instead, it conceives our primary relation to the world as non-self-conscious engagement and absorbed coping. In this non-objectifying mode things come in and out of prominence as we move through our environment and immediately (or non-mediately) respond to the situation. We do not experience things around us as ‘external objects’ or even ‘stimuli’, but rather as things that solicit our responses and provide affordances for us to be able to handle and manipulate them. Thus, rather than the mind being separate from the body, our primary engagement with the things around us is in fact a bodily one and we experience them in relation to our ability to handle them and to attain a ‘grip’ on them.

This immediate and skillful comportment is non-cognitive and is instead based on practical understanding. For example, we do not experience something like a chair or a cup as a thing that we then ‘recognise’ as useful for sitting on or gripping and drinking out of, but rather the sitting on or gripping and drinking out of is inherent in the experience of these things in the sense that these things solicit these responses as part of our experience or perception of them rather than us perceiving them as objects that we then recognise as useful for this or that. Rather, seeing these things as mere physical objects extended in space apart from these responses or uses is a further act of cognition or abstraction that is a further skill that needs to be learned. Thus, what Descartes describes as the thinking self is really a product of a special kind of schooling or training whereby the thinker learns to abstract away from the ordinary practical understanding of things and learns to view them as physical objects extended in space independently of our ordinary everyday practical use of them, that is, to see them outside of their normal social context.

Thus we can already see that phenomenology, while it is not committed to methodological behaviourism, and thus can accept evidence of introspection, posits that in our primary and ordinary skillful mode of operation there is a tight and non-cognitively-mediated connection with the world, such that we respond immediately to things, and our responses are solicited by these things. In that sense, without accepting behaviourist theory, phenomenology does not accept that cognitive processes are involved in ordinary skillful coping even in a non-conscious sense, and posits a tight connection comprising the body-mind-thing system.

How then does phenomenology conceive of the self and cognitive processes? In the ordinary skillful coping there is only the self as an “I” that is immediately responding to the solicitations of things and situations around it. However, there are situations in which this skillful coping encounters contradictions or problems that require reassessment. For example, a friend behaves in an uncharacteristic way and we have to decide whether this was out of character for him or whether our assumption about his character has been wrong all along. Moments of self-doubt or questioning lead to a process of self-objectification in which the “I” looks self-reflectively at the objectified “Me”. What Descartes described as the ‘thinking self’ is in fact the objectification of the “Me”. It is this objectified “Me” that is the subject matter of cognitive psychology which can proceed only by ignoring the “I”.

In a psychological laboratory we treat the person as a ‘subject’ by trying to objectify him or her as a ‘thing’, abstracting from the subjective experiences of the whole person and instead trying to manipulate a narrow set of variables that control some measurable subset of responses. We would not normally accept treating people in this way in ordinary life outside of the laboratory (as this would be viewed as psychopathic), and it is questionable how useful it is to treat them that way even inside the laboratory. In cognitive models it is a methodological assumption that responses and capacities are caused by some specifiable variables such that it is possible to uncover and manipulate these variables in order to predict a specific response or capacity. That is, what cognitivism shares with behaviourism is the assumption of methodological behaviourism whereby behaviour can be predicted on the basis of some specifiable causes, the difference being merely whether these causes are external stimuli or internal cognitive states or processes.

Phenomenology rejects methodological behaviourism by denying that behaviour is the product of such specifiable causes and instead posits a tight unity between the environment, the body and the mind, and instead of seeking out causes proceeds to characterise functionally the world-body-mind system. Instead of viewing the cognitive system as a system of elements whereby we want to try to identify the causal connections, as is the strategy of methodological behaviourism, we begin with the connected whole and then identify its elements through a process of description that utilises our practical understanding. Thus, thinkers as diverse as G. H. Mead and Schutz “stressed that personal consciousness involves no multiplicity of elements needing to be reunited, but rather a unity from which one separates out components, and they each examined the modifications that reflection introduces into the ‘lived stream’, converting an “I” into a “Me”…” and show “how reflection dissolves the self unified in lived action into partial, role-taking selves”.

So, to summarise, the problem of phenomenology is to try to characterise consciousness, the body, and the relations to objects and others in non-objectifying/subjectifying terms. The Cartesian objectifying consciousness is not the normal modus operandi, but rather a special type of intellectual skill that is the product of schooling. In intellectual thought we learn to view things in a disengaged manner as abstract entities extended in three-dimensional space. In ordinary consciousness things do not appear to us in this way, eg., physical objects do not appear to us in some abstract three-dimensional space. Instead, we view them from a particular perspective, from a particular distance, and in relation to our ability to manipulate them, eg., to grasp them with our hand, to attain what Merleau-Ponty calls ‘maximal grip’. We learn what a thing is not by viewing it as an external stimulus that causes certain effects on our mind and behaviour, but rather, as Dewey argues, by actively exploring it and handling it and thus broadning our understanding of it, and thus orienting outselved to it so that it can be best handled, manipulated and used.

Another idea that has emerged from the rejection of Cartesian intellectualism is that there is a level of interaction that lies between purely instinctive behaviour and mature linguistic interaction which is gestural. The view is that the type of reflecting and objectifying skills that characterise cognition are dependent on the development of certain linguistic practices and schooling, e.g., it depends heavily on the development of literacy. This idea of a conversation of gestures as a basic mode of interaction and engagement with the world originates with Wilhelm Wundt’s Volkerpsychologie written in 1900-1920, and has been developed by pragmatist thinkers such as G.H. Mead and Bronislaw Malinowski. On this view gestural interaction marks the tight, non-objectifying relations between individuals or putatively also between individuals and things.


Malinowski and Social Psychology of Language

In my current research I am looking at the ideas of Bronislaw Malinowski in relation to applied linguistics. I am particularly interested in Malinowski’s critique of a view of language, in his day, drawn from historical linguistics, which takes intellectual and abstract uses of language as the paradigm. He believes that taking this as a paradigm of language use is the source of some fundamental confusions both in science and philosophy, and retards understanding of the nature of meaning.

I want to argue that the problems and confusions that Malinowski is pointing towards remain with us to this day and have not as yet been adequately addressed, and therefore that his critique of what we might broadly call intellectualism in linguistics, psychology and philosophy remains valid, and is useful in looking at some of the issues in linguistics today. Furthermore, I want to suggest that in his proposals for an alternative to ‘intellectualism’ Malinowski offers us an approach to developing a framework for a social psychological approach to language.

A social psychological approach is to be distinguished from other approaches, in particular cognitivist approaches, which are psychological or individualist in orientation, but also sociolinguistic approaches which are sociological or collectivist in orientation (see eg., Giles 1984).[1] I also want to argue that such an approach is necessary because of the shortcomings of both, cognitivist and sociolinguistic approaches in dealing with some central questions and problems.

Malinowski’s Model for Social Psychology of Language

So the questions are:

  • what is Malinowski’s approach
  • how can it be relevant to contemporary issues? and
  • how can it be helpful in developing a social psychological approach?

I want to argue that Malinowski’s critique of certain approaches to language remain valid to this day in relation to cognitivism and sociolinguistics.

Malinowski’s critique goes something like this. The study of language in Malinowski’s time was mainly in the domain of philology (the study and interpretation of literary texts and written records), and comparative and historical linguistics (Wikipedia). At the same time, within that academic tradition, psychology was conceived in essentially individualistic and behaviouristic terms (Farr). Psychology on the one hand, and the social sciences on the other, have developed divergent methodologies, theories and conceptual frameworks.

Psychology has tended to prefer the model of the ‘hard’ sciences such as biology, that is, experimental and empirical methods. Social sciences have, on the other hand, tended in the direction of humanities and qualitative methods and interpretation on the model of the interpretation of texts. Because of the bifurcation between the hard and the soft sciences, social psychology of language has been difficult to place: is it an experimental ‘hard’ science of behaviour, or an interpretive ‘soft’ science of cultural expression?

Philology looks at language in the form of historical texts, that is, in the form of dead languages. Sociological approaches have similarly tended towards the study of cultural products and the preferred methods have been interpretation or hermeneutic. That has mean that, in so far as there is a psychology that includes subjectivity and cognition, it has tended to be conceived in individualistic and behaviouristic terms, that is, in terms of behaviour manifesting cognitive processes. This does not allow for an integration of psychological and social processes, that is, in Ogden and Richard’s words, the “influence of language upon thought”(Ogden and Richards, 1923).

My argument is that Malinowski’s naturalistic pragmatism offers the prototype of a framework for a social psychology of language. The basic proposal of this framework is to view language in naturalistic-evolutionary terms, that is, in terms of basic functions. Texts of dead languages do not tell us what these ‘basic functions’ are.

In a way this can be viewed as the question of Dilthey’s vs. Wundt’s conception of language (Redding, Farr). Dilthey thought that we can overcome the horizons of our lived experience and comprehend texts of dead languages through a science of hermeneutics. Wundt develops a naturalistic framework for a folk psychology of a language of gestures. Naturalistic pragmatism that I develop here provides a coherent framework language emergence framework, in which what we understand as modern forms of language emerge from more basic or ‘primitive’ forms of symbolic interaction. It provides the basis for an evolutionary or genetic methodology: biological and cultural evolution as a methodological framework

Relevance to current issues in linguistics

On the one hand, cognitive approaches to language view it in terms of the individual cognitive subject, with his cognitive capacities. This perspective does not allow us to view language in its essentially social function. It views language as a static object, outside of a social and cultural context. It is not sensitive to the fact that language, culture and social interaction are intrinsically intermeshed and cannot be separated as parallel realities: when you speak you are (a) in social interaction, and (b) your language behaviour is conditioned by your cultural attitudes. In other words, attitudes to the group, group membership, etc. are involved.

On the other hand, sociological approaches view languages either in terms of (a) written texts that are representative products of a cultural group in written and hence dead form; or (b) in purely sociological or group terms, ie., in terms of group dynamics and group affiliation. Both types of approaches to language, historical linguistics (‘dead’ language) on the one hand, and sociolinguistics (‘group mind’) on the other, have no psychological story about how ‘lived’ language is used and shaped by individuals in specific contexts to achieve practical ends, as a tool, and how this utilisation of language in turn shapes the language and thus provides for it’s further evolution.

Malinowski is not denying these uses of language and realities, ie., the intellectual-communicative, the group-think, or language as an instrument of abstract thought and communication of ideas. The question is whether these uses are primary to the understanding of how language works, eg., how language influences thought, how words come to have the meanings that they do, in other words, the mechanics of language. The argument is that many of the problems encountered in the sciences of language and cognition arise from confusions about the mechanics of language, primarily due to false models language drawn from a conception of language-as-text, which in sociology (sociolinguistics) lead to collectivist models, and in psychology (cognitivism) lead to cognitivist models.

A major aspect of language function is what we might call social cohesion. In the primitive group, a major issue is the maintenance of the group, of group cohesion, and cooperative activity. In this respect, you cannot separate the affective (cohesitve, motivational, etc.) aspects of language from the cognitive (intellectual, communicative, etc.). That is, in the context of the situation, language is never really purely an instrument of abstract thought and communication of ideas. In Dewey’s terms, language in its natural setting is both immediate and instrumental.

Finally, the implication of pragmatism is that the proper approach to the psychology of language is social psychological. That is, it must view social interaction as it’s central point of departure. And it must include the social psychological constructs of affect, attitude, and social cohesion, in it’s understanding of language and interaction. That is, the social psychological view of interaction is not the communication of ideas. There are non-cognitive, socioaffective factors that enter into the communicative interaction. Communicative interaction is never a purely cognitive process of communicating ideas. In other words, there is always a social context, ie., the context of motivations, attitudes and feelings.


1. I want to also include G. H. Mead as another important source for social psychological framework which I will discuss elsewhere.

Project Summary and Rationale

Research in applied linguistics tends to focus on language teaching. This is the case even when the focus is on the learner, as in ‘learner-centred teaching’. A possible exception to this may be research into learner strategies, in order to explain apparent success in acquiring a second language by some learners, and failure or more limited success in others. What bears consideration, however, are other features of the learner which are not affected by language teaching methodology, but which may make significant, perhaps even decisive, difference in the level of success, namely, individual differences in personality traits and motivation.

Applied linguistic research has tended to focus on such areas as the processes of second language acquisition, learning strategies, effective classroom procedures, etc. These can typically be viewed as aspects of input or the stimulus and are therefore deterministic in that they assume that given the right type of input the learner will ‘automatically’ acquire the language. To that extent they do not take into account characteristics of the learner that affect how the learner deals with the input so as to affect the success or failure to acquire the target language. Two types of characteristics that may affect how the learner deals with the input, that will therefore affect acquisition, that we want to focus in this project, are (a) the leaerner’s personality traits and (b) the learner’s goals.


A common problem both in formal and informal contexts is what is sometimes identified as ‘lack of motivation’. Teachers stuggle to keep their students engaged. Often there is little control over the materials which can be used because of institutional policies or simply lack of access to resources. Even when quality teaching and resources are available, learners do not make effective use of them. Independent learners often struggle to keep motivated. Other times, learners seem to pick up quite a bit of a language with minimal resources, eg., by talking to people or watching movies.

It is now generally accepted that learners need a good amount of input and interaction, which is comprehensible and facilitates noticing (if you are a cognitivist) or in the zone of proximal development (if you are a social constructivist). So we can predict that lacking comprehensible input and interaction a learner is unlikely to pick up the target language. However, for some learners access to comprehensible input and interaction might lead to relatively poor outcomes in terms of acquisition, while lack of access to such input might lead some highly motivated learners to seek out such input and make maximal use of what is available.

This might lead us to ask the question as to the significance of individual differences among learners, and the importance of these relative to aspects of the stimulus. Focusing on how the material is structured (factors such as the planning of the lesson, the vocabulary taught, the teaching of strategies, the quality of interaction in the lesson, etc.) is looking at the stimulus. It assumes that if the stimulus is structured properly acquisition will take place automatically. This is not an unreasonable assumption given that, a child can be reliably predicted to acquire the language in its environment.

However, it is clear that this does not apply in the case of second language acquisition. Migrants do not acquire the language of the host country. There are wide individual differences among learners who attend language schools. Some of these differences might be attributed to the quality of the stimulus, ie., the quality of the teaching, the quality of the materials available.

But one variable that is likely to determine acquisition is what the learner does with the stimulus. In other words, it cannot simply be assumed that once the stimulus hits the cognitive system, given its correct structuring, it will simply ‘trigger’ acquisition as it appears to do so in the case of the first language acquisition. The observation is that there are individual and cultural differences in the way that second languages are acquired. So learners must be doing different things with the stimulus that is delivered. Or alternatively, they seek out and/or respond to different types of stimuli. That is, learners actively select the way that they want the stimulus delivered and respond only to that.

Individual and Cultural Differences in Learners

So the view developed here is that the learner will select and attend to the stimulus in different ways. One idea that has been popular is the idea of ‘multiple intelligences’ as well as different ‘learning styles’. These ideas have limited empirical support, although these arguments warrant a longer discussion and analysis.

One set of ideas about individual differences that seems relevant to this has been developed by Jordan B. Peterson. Peterson is interested in the prediction and improvement of performance. For example, employers are highly interested in predicting the performance of job applicants, as this makes significant difference in terms of the cost of hiring a poor performer and the value of hiring a high performer. They are also interested in improving the performance of existing employees, as this may prove more cost effective than replacement.

It turns out that the factors that make a difference in performance on the job are quite general and may apply to, for example, the level of success in acquiring a language. Peterson focuses on two areas:

Big Five Personality Traits

Peterson points to the Big Five Personality Traits as a way of predicting performance: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and euroticism. These traits have been identified through many decades of psychometric research into personality differences, and have been highly predictive. Each of the Big Five personality traits contain separate but correlated aspects:

  • Neuroticism: volatility and withdrawal
  • Extraversion: enthusiasm and assertiveness
  • Openness: intellect and openness
  • Conscientiousness: industriousness and orderliness
  • Agreeableness: compassion and politeness

Roughly, research indicates that success is positively correlated with Conscientiousness and Openness, and negatively correlated with Neuroticism. It is therefore a reasonable hypothesis that success in acquiring a language may be correlated with these aspects. For example, we may speculate that learners who are high on Openness but low on Conscientiousness will learn differently and respond differently to input than learners who are low on Openness and high on Conscientiousness.

It is then a separate question whether this would merely serve as an instrument for prediction of outcomes, and hence potentially as a means of selection, or whether it is possible to adapt the input to the personality type for better outcomes. So it may be that learners who score below a certain level on Openness and Conscientiousness are unlikely to have acceptable outcomes irrespective of the input. Also, it may be that learners who score higher on Openness respond better to different type of imput than learners who score higher on Conscientiousness.


Peterson has also looked at research into goal setting in relation to improving performance. Reviewing the literature he found that setting goals and pursuing them leads to improvements in mental and physical health, as well as significant improvements in task performance. The majority of this research has been done in the context of business. Locke and Letham (1964, 1990) report that

  1. Goals that are specific and difficult lead to better performance than vague exhortations to “do your best” or no specified goals at all.
  2. The relationship between goal difficulty and performance is linear and positive
  3. Other factors (competition, feedback, decision-making) only affect performance to the extent that they help to establish and adjust the commitment to specific and difficult goals
  4. The main motivational mediators of the goal setting-performance relationship are: direction, effort, persistence and strategy.

Peterson et al developed a writing tool in which participants imagine an ideal future, arguing that this is likely to lead to improved outcomes in terms of physical and mental health and likely outcomes.

The idea of goal-setting in relation to language learning is not new. In fact, it is a central component of the idea of learner autonomy. The result of research in this area has been the development of such tools as the European Language Portfolio in which learners are asked to write down their language learning history and their language learning goals.

This type of tool is different from Peterson’s writing tool in that (a) it focuses on biography and goals which are specific to language; and (b) it is not clear that learners are encouraged to set goals that are difficult, or imagine futures which are ‘ideal’. If performance is in a linear proportion to the difficulty of the goals it may not be optimal to set goals that are ‘realistic’.

Concluding remarks

The two approaches investigated by Peterson appear to generalise to a language teaching and learning context. Scores on the Big Five personality traits may predict and explain different levels of success, and therefore serve as a tool for selection and potentially also planning of teaching materials. If learners cannot be pre-selected performance may be further improved with the use of goal-setting tools such as the Self-Authoring suite.

Multiple Levels of Validation of Psychological Constructs

In one of his lectures Jordan Peterson says that psychological constructs are difficult to validate, and therefore that it is desirable to have up to five levels of validation for any such construct, including psychometric, neuroscientific, pharmacological, evolutionary etc. An example might be one of the Big Five Personality Traits Conscientiousness-Orderliness, which is validated with reference to disgust, which has evolutionary value (avoidance of disease) and behavioural correlates (eg., facial expression).

This provides a research paradigm for psychology and related disciplines. For example, in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) it is posited that language is acquired naturally when certain conditions are met, in particular, there is sufficient compehensible input and noticing. The idea is that given adequate comprehensible input the learner will notice certain linguistic features which is a necessary condition of acquisition. Moreover, there will be a natural progression in learning innately determined by the structure of the language acquisition system.

Other theories, such as Social Constructivism,

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