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The Shibboleths of TEFL, or Sense and
Nonsense in Language Teaching
by Mark Lowe
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A shibboleth is ‘an old idea, principle or phrase, that is no longer accepted by many people as important or appropriate to modern life’. (Advanced Learners Dictionary). The discourse of Teaching English as a Foreign Language is riddled with shibboleths that distort our thinking and disrupt our teaching methods. The aim of this paper is to expose the shibboleths, straighten out our thinking, and free our methods from obsolete and mischievous ideas.

Let us start with quotations from key language thinkers to provide some theoretical background – and ammunition - for the shibboleth hunt.

Wittgenstein (a key 20th century philosopher, and the pioneer of a philosophical view of language based on function and use rather than abstract system. He also pioneered the role of philosophy as ‘language therapy’, sorting out confusion in our thinking caused by muddles in language):

the meaning of a word is its use

Language is an instrument.

Speech… is part of the web of human life, interwoven with a multitude of acts, activities, reactions and responses

If a lion could talk, we would not understand him

Grammar is a free-floating array of rules for the use of language… It is not answerable to the nature of reality, to the structure of the mind or the ‘laws of thought’. It is autonomous.

Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language

Philosophy is a fight against the fascination which our forms of expression exert on us.

We are struggling with language

The aim of philosophy is to let the fly out of the bottle

Searle (a leading American contemporary philosopher of language, with special interests in speech acts, the social role of language, and the neuro-physiological foundations of language):

When we think about language, much of our vocabulary is obsolete and our assumptions are false.

Many of the currently fashionable views about language and the mind are inconsistent with what we know about the world

Mental phenomena are caused by neuro-physiological processes in the brain.

In our skulls there is just the brain with all of its intricacy, and consciousness with all its colour and variety. The brain produces the conscious states that are occurring in you and me right now, and it has the capacity to produce many others that are not now occurring. But that is it. Where the mind is concerned, that is the end of the story. There are brute, blind neuro-physiological processes and there is consciousness, but there is nothing else. If we are looking for phenomena that are intrinsically intentional but inaccessible in principle to consciousness, there is nothing there: no rule following, no mental information processing, no unconscious inferences, no mental models… no language of thought, no LAD and no innate or universal grammar.

Halliday (leading applied linguist, a pioneer of functional language theory, and author of An Introduction to Functional Grammar, Learning How to Mean etc)

Language is a means to an end, rather than an end in itself.

Language has evolved to satisfy human needs, and the way it is organized is functional with respect to those needs – it is not arbitrary. A functional grammar is essentially a natural grammar, in the sense that everything in it can be expressed ultimately by reference to how language is used.

The fundamental components of meaning in language are functional. All language is organized around two main kinds of meaning: (a) the ideational or reflective, and (b) the interpersonal or active. The first enables us to understand the environment, and the second to act on each other. .

All the units of language – its clauses, phrases and words etc – are organic configurations of functions.

A language is interpreted as a system of meanings, accompanied by forms through which the meanings are realized.

Language is natural. It reflects experience, eg process = verb, and participant = noun.

Language is an evolved system, and not a designed one. There is congruence between language expressions and the facts in the world it reflects or relates to.

Linguistics is in the same condition today as Physics was in the 15th century

Let us summarise these ideas. The way of thinking about language that informs this article is based on insights from both philosophy and linguistics. It incorporates ideas from Searle’s Theory of Mind, Halliday’s functional linguistics, and Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations (which takes a basically functional view of language). It is critical of Chomskyan psycholinguistics and it follows Wittgenstein’s own rejection of the ideas in his early Tractatus (which interpreted language as a logical system reflecting the ‘logical’ structure of reality). This view of language grounds our thinking in verified truth rather than in metaphysics, in science and not in myth.

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