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Chomsky offers advice to teachers on the use of science

Domenico Pacitti talks to Noam Chomsky

Noam Chomsky is generally credited with being the father of modern linguistics, revolutionising the study of language and mind. His far-reaching influence across a broad spectrum of thought in both the humanities and sciences has contributed to his reputation as one of the foremost intellectual figures of recent times.

Remarkably, most of Chomsky’s major publications in linguistics since 1955, including his ground-breaking Syntactic Structures (1957), spring from a single precocious work, The Logical Structure of Linguistic Theory. This mammoth undertaking, which he completed at the age of just twenty-six but decided to publish only twenty years later, expressed all the essential thought that he was subsequently to draw upon.

Given his hectic schedule, Chomsky is generous in answering questions and explaining difficulties relating to his work, which he feels is frequently distorted by biased or inattentive critics. In email correspondence, I recount that Gazette readers are concerned about the relevance of his theories to EL teaching and second-language acquisition. Recurrent issues include the adaptation of his minimalist programme to SLA understanding: whether SL grammar construction for adults is comparable to that of children engaged in first-language acquisition; whether bilinguals have distinct parallel grammars or one overall grammar; and whether it might not be the case that real and natural language materials and activities continue to work better than self-conscious attempts to apply language theory.

I phone him at his home in Massachusetts and begin tentatively. “The interview we ran in the Gazette back in January seemed to go down well with readers but it also raised questions about theory and practice in language teaching. I know you make a rule of never giving advice, but could you offer some sort of guidance here?”

Predictably, Chomsky has a single answer to these questions. Equally predictably, linguistic theory turns out to provide no ready-made recipes for EL teachers, who should rather be conceived of as craftsmen with a prevalence of intuition and practical experience over scientific theory.

“Look”, Chomsky replies. “There’s a general point that should be understood here. People who are doing applied work – whether they are teachers, doctors or engineers – should pay attention to what’s going on in the sciences. But they should also recognise that the sciences aren’t going to give them their answers.”

Engineering and physics, he suggests, provide an interesting, if more advanced, parallel to language teaching: “Until very recently engineers learned from the sciences, but most of what they knew was craft. The crafts were so much more advanced than theoretical understanding that the engineers worked like artists. You know, you learned how to do it. Physics didn’t really get to contribute to engineering theory until fairly recently. In fact, when I got to MIT not that long ago in the 1950s, it was still largely an engineering school, and physics was taught as a service. But if engineers wanted to construct electric circuits or build a bridge and so on, you learned for the profession and you learned some physics – and it helped you, but now it’s changed.”

The same, Chomsky argues, is true of medicine: “I mean, it’s only quite recently that with antibiotics and new surgical techniques and so on basic biology and science has actually contributed. It’s mostly a craft. Where there are contributions, you should pay attention to them – just like a swimming coach should pay attention to physiology. But you have to work by the things that matter.”

I press Chomsky to explain what EL teachers should do in order to improve teaching performance. He replies that what matters more than anything else is motivation. “If students are motivated to do something – and all good teachers know this – they’ll probably learn no matter what the methods are. On the other hand, if they have good methods and they are not motivated, they won’t learn a thing.”

Unfortunately, he says, science tells us nothing about motivation. So what teachers should do is get on with the job while at the same time keeping an interested eye on theoretical developments. “There is by now pretty strong evidence – I don’t think it’s really controversial any more – that linguistic knowledge is what’s called ‘modular’, that is, separate from other kinds of systems. But that’s true of all cognitive faculties. There are specialised faculties that do different things. What teachers can do is look at that so they can learn from it. They can see what we know about these specialised faculties.”

But when teachers go into a language teaching class, Chomsky concludes, all of this should become no more than background understanding for them, since it does not answer their immediate question of how to perform their craft effectively.

Note: This interview first appeared in the July 2001 issue of EL Gazette (London).