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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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).
  4. 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)?
  5. 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?

Andrew

 

Comments

sandrobarros

Great thoughts these ones...

Loved these. I was wondering, though...

1. "The internal meanings that each person make are wholly individual and unknowable by others". True, but one may not be aware of these. I think of Freire's concientization process, becoming aware through the establishment of relational accounts, asking how this or that has come into being....

2.I would love to understand more what you mean here: 'We necessarily sense and make sense through our physiology. We have no choice in the matter". We have no choice as to how we react to meaning -making processes and outcomes? How we become cognicent of their larger sociopolitical implications? This student has quesitons. 

3."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)." I like the questions "how come I came to know what I know and, therefore, understand it this or that way? Yummie possibilities, no?

 

Good stuff, friend.

Sandro R. Barros

Assistant Professor of Modern Languages

DePauw University

Greencastle, IN 46135

 

"Conflict is the moral state of difference" (Roland Barthes)

"Reading the world to read the word" (Paulo Freire)

mlapl1

Look at my SUT keynote

I am rewriting/have rewritten the argument about the 5 axioms nad re-ordered them to make more sense. I will try to consolidate my thoughts a bit and write up in a new post. You will find the general argument in my keynote presentation to the Graduate Seminar at SUT. Here is the link. I will also put it in a separate document on this site. Things are expressed in note form but I thik they are clearer than in my original post.

http://www.authorstream.com/Presentation/mlapl1-1350825-sut-grad-seminar...

 

Andrew

mlapl1

I will try to answer your points

See my comments after the @@@ signs

1. "The internal meanings that each person make are wholly individual and unknowable by others". True, but one may not be aware of these. I think of Freire's concientization process, becoming aware through the establishment of relational accounts, asking how this or that has come into being....

@@@
Agreed. I do not mean to imply that we are aware or conscious of them. All I am trying to say is that our meanings and thoughts are completely private. Conscientization is a process that we may or may not engage in. Awareness may exist at a level below that of the conscious.

 

2.I would love to understand more what you mean here: 'We necessarily sense and make sense through our physiology. We have no choice in the matter". We have no choice as to how we react to meaning -making processes and outcomes? How we become cognicent of their larger sociopolitical implications? This student has quesitons. 

@@@
Hmmm. I see how this might be ambiguous. All I am trying to say is something like: the mind is trapped inside the body that houses it. Sprituality and magentic/electrical impulses aside, it only senses through a process mediated by the nervous system (which is fragile/unreliable and subject to many influences both physical and psychological). This is the only way that we can access the world. Hence we have no choice. Does that make sense?

 

3."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)." I like the questions "how come I came to know what I know and, therefore, understand it this or that way? Yummie possibilities, no?

@@@
Yummmie possibilities indeed. But perhaps unknowable in practice as too many factors are involved. And... do we know what it is that we know? And does it matter? In a way it is a psychiatric question. When did you first discover you hated  your dog? And how did that realisation affect your life? Now that you know that you hated your dog, you should feel better about your life and sleep better at night. But of course I am joking. More seriously, from an intellectual perspective, asking questions is something of an obligation - curiosity is what drives progress.

All that we can say is that in some way this knowledge, albeit unconscious, is built into our logical and representational systems.

A  note about the unconscious/unknown... We are always thirsty for knowledge (essentially re-defined as certainty - or highly probable at very least: I know the Earth is flat. I know that atoms consist of a nucleus and electrons whizzing around it. I know this table is solid - none of which is "true"), but we may sometimes need to learn to function without certainty (and we actually do all the time - often without realising it. We teach "language" but when we judge language performance, we actually judge things which we did not teach and cannot recognise, such as gesture, that we do not know about but that we ultimately value and which enable us to recognise good "linguistic" performance rather than mediocre). .

I am not suggesting that we should not try to answer the kinds of question you mention, just that we can still move forward in a universe which is less certain than we would like it to be. Some years ago I wrote a short presentation to a computer and philosophy conference on knowledge in language learning - may be interesting though perhaps less rigorous than I would have liked it. I may make it available on this site for debate/discussion/interest. 

I am enjoying this conversation - let's keep talking - and let's hear from others too, particularly students.