Five axioms in search of a theorem
Language learning is a complicated business and research articles have dealt with it in complicated ways. Of course, this is as it should be (it is a complicated business) and yet one wonders why after all of this huge intellectual work we are really not very close to solving the general problem of language-learning at the level of principle (and yes I do recognise that in some countries the learning of languages is better or more successful than in others - e.g. in Scandinavia or the Netherlands). I suspect that one reason for this lack of success is the political structure around PhD study and the production of research for the purposes of promotion and other forms of recognition in the academic world which focuses on small, often short-term, data-driven research rather than fundamental intellectual research. This situation has resulted in fragmented rather than coherent research and, in my opinion, the situation is exacerbated by the fact that we are not able to agree, or demonstrate the existence of, basic principles governing learning in general and language-learning in particular.
With this in mind, I have been wondering whether it might be possible to arrive at some relatively self-evident (or axiomatic) principles that we might all agree on and which, therefore, could serve as the basis for the development of theories of (language-)learning and teaching or which could serve as tests (a bit like the Turing test in computing) to check the validity of any theory of teaching or learning.
In my reductionist mood, I have come up with the following five interdependent and (I hope) logically undeniable statements:
- Learners are physiological/biological beings with all the constraints that this implies (including a historical constraint: how we have developed as creatures and how we have acquired the world or as my colleague/student Chai Neng would say: "How the world/language has acquired us"). Surely no one would deny this.
- Knowledge/learning is constructed upon acts of meaning-making. If you do not make *some* kind of sense of something, then you cannot learn it or know it. (We necessarily sense and make sense through our physiology. We have no choice in the matter). I am not talking here about the "correct" meaning but the sense we make of things i order to operate in the world. Surely no one would deny this too.
- The internal meanings that each person make are wholly individual and unknowable by others (although influenced by environment - society, parents, activities - and physical circumstances - from genes to disabilities etc.) and are constructed on the basis of one's past as expressed through each person's logical and representational systems (everything is perception). While we may argue about the extent to which logical and representational systems are influenced by nature or nurture, surely no one would argue against a mechanism for understanding the world which is based on how WE think about "things" (our logic) and how WE represent "things" to ourselves and to others (our representational - essentially semiotic - systems).
- Logical and representational systems are constructed (a) through interaction with the world (including people) and (b) contain each person's individual operational history (let's call it experience). Can anyone deny (a)? Would anyone deny (b)?
- Because of our physiology, which precludes us from engaging in the direct exchange of thoughts or direct communication (we cannot engage in the Vulcan mind-meld), all communication is necessarily mediated by semiotic systems (language, gesture or whatever).
These five principles necessarily argue for a constructed internal universe for each of us (and therefore a non-objective representation of the world for each of us). Under these circumstances, the positivistic agenda cannot persist. This does not mean that the real world does not exist, merely that we cannot touch it directly - and all we are able to do is to produce discourses (or stories) both to ourselves and the world in our attempts to explain it or function in it. Even if we do see the world as it is, we still have internal representations of it.
While there may be other axioms that one might be able to develop, these 5 simple things provide me with a necessary, and possibly sufficient, principle for moving forward - and all theories of learning that we create should, if they are to be of value, take account of them.
What does everyone think?