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Approaches to SLA-research: a critical reflection

by Ania Lian

Amazingly, every trend in education justifies its existence through the same people such as Freire or Dewey. Interesting. It looks that educational methods (e.g. experiential, situational, project-based etc), like religions, all refer to the same leaders but with a different method for the realisation of the message.  Furthermore, no method or religion enables conditions or a life that makes exploration of the message possible for all. Instead, they all need to define the interpretation in order to impose their own order of things.  (Ania Lian, April,  2003)

It is my position that at the level of theory building (i.e. the methodology of the inquiry), no current approach in Second Language Acquisition (SLA) is able to resolve the problem of conflict and differences. Moreover, as second language (L2)-teaching derives its reference basis from the studies in SLA, the theoretical shortcomings that characterise the study of second language acquisiton are also present in the teaching models that appropriate them uncritically. It seems that unless L2-teaching finds the intellectual means to resolve its own problems, it runs the risk of importing from the field of SLA more than just ideas. It also imports the kinds of politics that the field of SLA practices, and which privilege some perspective over others.

Thus, in the context of L2-teaching, both the cognitivist (incl. the interactionist) and the socioculturalist approaches (as defined by Lantolf 2000 and Thorne 2002) to the study of second language acquisition reduce the learning process to the teaching of what the expert/teacher knows. In this way, it is not only learners that are deprived of the means that would emancipate him/her from the authority of the teacher/the authorised 'text'. Also, theories cannot find ways of escaping own prejudices, own histories, in ways that would help them increase the perspective in terms of which they perceive and evaluate events. As a result, both researchers and learners, equally, work within the reference structures that, rather than enabling them to see more, confine that vision to that which is already known.

We may say that the sense of empowerment that researchers and learners gain, comes from the power of the authorised text that researchers and students perform. Subsequently, students’ and researchers’ ability to affect their own destiny in terms of its path and the objectives is constrained by the authorised text. It can be said that until the concept of power in the process of theory building and language teaching is resolved, power is mobilised in ways that restrict the potency of the potential insights that all perspectives potentially may bring with them. A way out, as my study suggests, is not for perspectives to fight for dominance in order to be then passed on to students. Rather, it is for perspectives to be confronted and to affect one another in ways that restrict and hence help to identify their field of power (the potency).

 
The methodology of the kind that is currently pursued by the cognitivist and the sociocultural approaches to L2-teaching and research is neatly described by Karl Popper. Popper, when discussing the question of what makes science scientific, focused on the difference between a genuine inquiry and ideology. According to Popper, the power of a model does not come from what it claims to explain but, rather, from its ability to view all its explanations as limitations and, hence, from its ability to question what it assumes/believes. It is this ability to grow from questioning, and hence by exploring differences and conflict, that, in his view, forms a genuine (disinterested) scientific inquiry.  In turn, attempts that confine the inquiry to the boundaries of what is already known run a serious risk of becoming epistemologically obsolete.  This is so because they seek a deeper understanding of itself through itself. The relevance of these inquiries is established self-referentially, from within. Thus, rather than learning by creating a bigger picture, they force a study of increasingly smaller phenomena resulting in learning increasingly more about increasingly less.

For questions to be truly testing, they cannot be generated from within. Instead, they must be generated from discourses that are incommensurable with the model under consideration. The objective of testing is to look for perceptions, points of view that have the capacity to reveal limitations in the assumptions on which the hypotheses rest. In this way, the inquiry proceeds by continuously redefining its conceptual basis. In Popper’s terms, it proceeds by seeking to refute or by challenging its assumptions. It builds by including perspectives that do not fit the picture. By including more, the inquiry gains a bigger perspective from which it can examine the potency or the power of its perceptions and beliefs:  

"I found that those of my friends who were admirers of Marx, Freud, and Adler were impressed by a number of points common to these theories and especially by their apparent explanatory power. These theories appeared to be able to explain practically everything that happened within the fields to which they referred. The study of any of them seemed to have the effect of an intellectual conversion or revelation, opening your eyes to a new truth hidden from those initiated. Once your eyes were thus opened you saw confirming instances everywhere: The world was full of verifications of the theory. Whatever happened always confirmed it. Thus its truth appeared manifest; and unbelievers were clearly people who did not want to see the manifest truth, who refused to see it, either because it was against their class interest, or because of their repressions which were still "unanalyzed" and crying aloud for treatment. The most characteristic element in this situation seemed to me the incessant stream of confirmations, of observations which "verified" the theories in question; and this point was constantly emphasized by their adherents. A Marxist could no open a newspaper without finding on every page confirming evidence for his interpretation of history [...] The Freudian analysts emphasized that their theories were constantly verified by their “clinical observations." [...] Once, in 1919, I reported to him [Adler] a case which to me did not seem particularly Adlerian, but which he found no difficulty in analyzing in terms of his theory of inferiority feelings, although he had not even seen the child. Slightly shocked, I asked him how he could be so sure. "Because of my thousandfold experience," he replied; whereupon I could not help saying, "And with this new case, I suppose, your experience has become thousand-and-one-fold." What I had in mind was that his previous observations may have not been much sounder than this new one; that each in its turn had been interpreted in the light of "previous experience," and at the same time counted as additional confirmation. What, I asked myself, did it confirm? No more than that the case could be interpreted in the light of the theory. But this meant very little, I reflected, since every conceivable case could be interpreted in the light of Adler’s theory, or equally, of Freud’s. […] I could not think of any human behavior which could not be interpreted in terms of either theory. It was precisely this fact – that they were always confirmed – which in the eyes of their admirers constituted the strongest argument in favor of these theories. It began to dawn on me that this apparent strength was in fact their weakness." (Popper, 1957 in Kourany, 1998: 178) 

Ania Lian, PhD Thesis, Chapter 3 (extracts), 2003




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