Language Teaching and Applied Linguistics Revised

A Short Review With a Preview on Future Studies


Part 1: A short review


"I heard a  Californian student in Heidelberg

say, in one of his calmest moods,

that he would rather decline two drinks than one German adjective."

(Mark Twain: A Tramp Abroad. Appendix D)


What Mark Twain expressed in few words is not just a pun that means to show the difficulty of learning German: It is the kind of humour linguists, especially of Second Language Acquisition, should have. But alas (and here I am quoting Wolfgang Klein, not Lawrence Sterne), they do not!


In his commemorative article on an ongoing Second Language Acquisition research of 25 years, Wolfgang Klein (1998) argues that SLA researchers have not yet found the adequate focus on educational research which in his opinion alone would satisfactorily justify the scientific dedication to this area of linguistics.


His critique aims at a research which is claimed to be carried out for the sake of language education, but whose researchers still apply an old-fashioned focus of error analysis; and even if they justify it with the label “interlanguage”, he argues that they are still observing language learners’ deviation from a standard instead of accepting their performance as a “learner variety”. It is obvious that they are also interested in a systematic knowledge about SLA in order to design something like an SLA theory, which would legitimate their scientific endeavour without doubt. The focus SLA researchers apply he calls the “target deviation perspective”, and he states the unified effort of language teachers and researchers consequently:


 “It is the teacher’s task to erase or at least to minimise the deviations; it is the researcher’s task to investigate which ‘errors’ [quotation marks of the source] occur when and for which reasons. As a consequence, a learner’s performance in production or comprehension is studied not so much in its own right, as a manifestation of the learner’s capacity, but in relation to a set norm; not in terms of what learners do but in terms of what they fail to do. […]” (Klein 1998, p.535)


Jacquelyn Schachter (1998) sums up the achievements of SLA research from a psycholinguistic perspective. Certainly without intention, she confirms Wolfgang Klein’s statement by her detailed review on SLA studies which were carried out to show typical grammar difficulties, e.g. of French, Italian and Chinese learners of English or Italian and English learners of French. In her conclusion she refers to the three research areas of SLA she had determined at the beginning of her article: a) the language, b) the input and c) the learner. Her questions for further investigation are:

“(a) Why do learners acquire some construction types and not others?

  (b) Does providing explicit language instruction confer any advantages

       on the learner?

  (c) Do learners need to attend to form and to be aware of the linguistic regularity

       in order to acquire it?” (Schachter 1998, p. 578)

A teacher of high school or university students today will certainly ask what might justify further SLA research in any of the mentioned or even other fields, if this is all the crop of 25 years. So does Ronald Wardhaugh (1998) in his response. He blames the failure of 50 years on language researchers who are still applying inadequate short-term methods or carrying out experiments derived from experimental psychology, and who are not yielding definitive solutions because:


“Language is a much broader psychological phenomenon than such a view and such experiments would have one believe.” (Wardhaugh 1998, p. 588)


In his conclusion he suggests three strategies in order to come to definitive results:


“First, for any language intended for use in research, researchers need to figure out a set of core grammatical features and language functions that they want learners to acquire, because these features are an essential part of ‘knowledge’ [quotation marks by the author] of that language. … Second, longer-term studies are necessary. … Finally, the work done in second language learning and teaching requires a much broader perspective. Schachter’s article clearly demonstrates the narrowness of the psycholinguistic approach, which has only a very limited appeal. It ignores most of language and all of society. … ” (Wardhaugh 1998, p. 589)


We share Ronald Wardhaugh’s disillusion about the short-term studies and inadequate experiments which have lead to the same results over and over again. He mentions the ‘research wheels [that] just spin and spin’ or the ‘déjà vu’ of repetitive research results in his response to Schachter’s review. But we cannot close our eyes in front of inappropriate education either. We urgently need results of educational research which will help teachers of today prepare students for tomorrow.


Regarding educational research, we consider a change of researchers’ attitude primordial. In a time of devastating materialism and steadily accelerating information flow teachers cannot limit themselves to just being teachers (which is already an unhandy profession nowadays); they must also be linguists, as well as linguists must be teachers. 


There have been outstanding proposals for classroom research in the 80s of last century which could be more useful now than ever, e.g. Nunan’s teacher trainers. With an anthropological view on the 21st century, we hold a more flexible research approach to be crucial. As the environment is becoming more and more inhumane, we must create the conditions for a humane learning process today and tomorrow. Therefore, we consider that the validity of the Humanistic Approach, which has been looked down on by generations of linguists, should be revalued, even more so because we have learned from our failures that language is a much more complex psychological phenomenon than short-term experiments of linguists could make us believe.


From the many voices which emphasise the advantages of humanistic language learning, e.g. Jakobovits and Gordon (1974), Moskowitz (1978), Brown (1980), Terrell (1982), Roberts (1982), Bhanot (1983), Scovel (1983), Rivers (1983), Brumfit (1984), Richards and Rodgers (1986), Medgyes (1986), and Stevick (1990), we wish to cite only Brown (1980) who refers to Carl Rogers (1961) with the following quotation:


“We can see in Rogers’ humanism quite a departure from the scientific analysis of Skinnerian psychology, and even from Ausubel’s rationalistic theory. Rogers is not as concerned about the actual cognitive process of learning since, he feels, if the context for learning is properly created, then human beings will, in fact, learn everything they need to … The teacher as facilitator must therefore provide the nurturing context for learning and not see his mission as one of rather programmatically feeding students quantities of knowledge which they subsequently devour.” (Brown 1980, p. 77)



Part 2: Preview on future studies


“Now, what I want is, Facts.

Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts.

Facts alone are wanted in life…”


In spite of Communicative and Whole Language Approach, how much has changed since Charles Dickens’ Hard Times in the way we are treating and teaching our students? Jacobovits and Gordon (1974) already expressed their disagreement with the education of their time in the 70s of last century:


“The creative potential of teachers and school administrators, of students, of legislators, and the larger community must be given a chance to unfold and flourish in an atmosphere that is free from the stifling restrictions of the philosophy of accountability. In the reality of the new consciousness, individual freedom alone can unleash man’s creative energies, not coercion, not competition, but faith, cooperation, permissiveness, trust, hope.” (p. 97)


Instead of asking how to raise a student’s level of motivation or attention, teachers should ask how to involve students in an active humanistic learning process. Earl W. Stevick (1990) names five components of humane learning behaviour:


“(H1) Feelings, including both personal emotions and aesthetic appreciation. This aspect of humanism   tends to reject whatever makes people feel bad, or whatever destroys or forbids aesthetic enjoyment.

 (H2) Social relations. This side of humanism encourages friendship and cooperation, and opposes whatever tends to reduce them.

 (H3) Responsibility. This aspect accepts the need for public scrutiny, criticism, and correction, and disapproves of whoever or whatever denies their importance.

 (H4) Intellect, including knowledge, reason, and understanding. This aspect fights against whatever interferes with the free exercise of the mind, and is suspicious of anything that cannot be tested intellectually.

 (H5) Self-actualization, the quest for full realization of one’s own deepest true qualities. This aspect believes that since conformity leads to enslavement, the pursuit of uniqueness brings about liberation.”


And to leave no doubt on the scientific validity of his proposal, he adds:


“If all these components are combined, one might say that, in the ‘humanistic’ [quotation marks by the author] view, the achievement of beauty and the realization of altruistic motives (H1 And H2) may often present problems. Any responsible approach (H3) to the solution of these problems relies on reason, science, and logical analysis (H4). Such an approach uses intuition only as a source of hypotheses to be tested, and above all is careful to exercise critical judgement, and thus to avoid any source of knowledge – religious or otherwise – that is not available to everyone. The quest for uniqueness (H5) may or may not accompany any of the other four emphases.”


This proposal may not be easily accepted by linguists who are used to examine students’ attention to form during language learning activities based on meaning-centred instruction, although they may improve their performance during input-processing and increase their language accuracy throughout the performance; or observing learners’ spontaneous attention to form in their interaction with other learners, whether learners usually focus on lexical rather than grammatical issues; and last but not least checking whether noticing of mismatches may lead to self-correction and give way to further processing, to mention only some of the most popular research questions of the end of last century.


However, we will give some examples of measurable problems that arise in language lessons actually, and they have directly to do with language learning. A proficiency test will show the linguistic achievements of students who are in a steady process of self-actualization, and its results will be compared with those of peers who have undergone the usual linguistic drill. The progress of self-actualization will be tested in two stages: First, the use of language learning strategies after one year, and second a language proficiency test and a cognitive test which shows problem-solving skills after two years.


Problem 1: We ignore our students


Foreign language (FL) teachers have to take into account their students’ abilities, attitudes and expectations, when they plan their language lessons because they know that these are crucial factors in the language learning process, and their influence in the language acquisition of each learner has been evidenced by linguistic research. Usually, they only have a limited knowledge of students’ linguistic abilities, maybe based on a proficiency test, but they have little or no idea at all of their learners’ attitudes and expectations. They usually don’t know anything about their problem-solving skills or cognitive monitoring, which also includes aural monitoring, either.


Some teachers start a language course with a survey that may hold detailed questions on their new students’ learning habits and course expectations, but the answers to these questions are rarely satisfactory for a new teacher who needs insight in his students’ learner lives. Therefore, we will ask our students to write a substantial paper on one of the issues they are going to select from a list of humanistic topics. The evaluation will be the starting point of our long-term study on the impact of students’ self-actualization in language learning; and its results will yield the basis for the observation of all the other aspects in a humanistic language learning approach.


Problem 2: Dependent language learning


Inside a classroom, students are more or less guided by a teacher, but classroom contact is usually reduced even in student-centred group-work. Peer interaction is possible in L1 (Language 1) or L2, usually more for the sake of content communication than language learning. However, some students do not participate in the classroom dialogue at all, and those who do so are not always observed by the teacher. Thus, students take control of their learning, developing so-called “interlanguage” (IL) strategies, i.e. mixing L1 and L2. At a proficiency level they could develop their intercultural awareness, but because of their lack of accuracy they learn L2 in a deficient way, and after the lesson they apply their own language learning strategies without the control of peers or teachers who could correct them. Therefore, regarding language teaching, we have to ask how a teacher can control his students’ language acquisition more efficiently, and what kind of strategies he should offer them in view of their ‘individual’ learning inside and its direct consequences for ‘independent’ learning outside the classroom.


If you call it ‘homework’ or ‘assignment’, any task that is based on an instruction given in class is subject to trans- or even deformation when being developed independently. Even though experienced teachers can maintain their students’ attention for more than 20 seconds, their explanations will not find much repercussion in the fellows’ minds, as they are already looking forward to seeing their girl-friend, playing soccer, listening to their favourite band, etc. However, instead of showing our disillusion about their meagre task performance in the following lesson, we will use the opportunity to analyse their independent task approach. We will interview each of them, asking them very specific questions on their step-by-step approach from the moment they were assigned the task and tape-record their answers. They will be informed about the aim of this analysis beforehand, so they will know about their commitment and the importance of their responsible handling of the task for the sake of research. They will then also know that we are not going to carry out an experiment, and as part of the responsibility is laid on their shoulders, they will assume their self-actualization individually.


Problem 3: Lack of commitment


Students’ work is usually taken for granted as a duty of mutual commitment between teacher and student. If we want to observe the impact of self-actualization in language learning, we must give each student the chance to check their own commitment depending on their aims. Teachers wonder often whether students accept their task as a pure obligation and then do it without much interest, or whether they are able to develop their favourite issues along with the task.


We will use this opportunity to ask each student for their personal aims in the first stage of this course. We will not force them to assume any further aim, even if they openly declare war against formal language learning and only set content goals. However, if they do not make the necessary steps to reach their determined goal, we will remind them without reproach. This observation will be carried out by checking students’ portfolios weekly. At the end of the first stage of observation, we will arrange new goals for the following stage with the students, again individually and based on their own experiences during the first stage.


Problem 4: A lack of social responsibility


Students who take over social responsibility for their course are of a rare species in extinction, and one of the most humane features in language learning is anonymous group behaviour. There is a kind of silent agreement which may be brought about by unofficial leaders, but usually the passive behaviour of the majority is sufficient to establish this brotherhood of conspirators and traitors. As long as there is an individual ambition, students will self-actualize, though in an isolated way. But they will never, not even on their birthday, cooperate with others voluntarily, unless someone is blind, lame or pregnant.


By now we have not considered the use of credits at all. The substitution of material rewards by spiritual ones is an important condition for the development of true self-actualization. We consider the promotion to the next stage to be the appropriate reward of well-developed self-actualization. This will be the first opportunity to give credits for basic achievements. Additional credits which are necessary to pass the course will only be assigned for outstanding achievements in self-actualization. They are bound to three conditions: First, the achievement must show the realization of a student’s own deepest true quality. Second, the student must have overcome his greatest weakness at least partially. Third, the student must have achieved the progress in self-actualization for the sake of the whole group.


This is a marvellous condition for research. We will hand out evaluation sheets that include all the goals which were agreed on with students individually. Each student of the course will have to help three peers to reach their goals, using the evaluation sheet as a starting point for cooperative group-work. The goals of the peers are added to their commitment, and they have to reach them together in order to be promoted to the next stage of the course.







Bhanot, R. 1983. Review of Early (ed.) 1982. English Language Teaching Journal 37/4.


Brown, H.D. 1980. Principles of Language Learning and Language Teaching. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.


Brumfit, C.J. 1984. Communicative Methodology in Language Teaching: The Roles of Fluency and Accuracy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Clarke, M.A. and J. Handscombe (eds.) 1983. On Tesol '82: Pacific Perspectives on Language Learning and Teaching. Washington, DC: TESOL.


Jakobovits, L.A. and B. Gordon. 1974. The Context of Foreign Language Teaching. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.


Klein, W. 1998. ‘The Contribution of Second Language Acquisition Research.’ Language Learning 48/4.


Medgyes, P. 1986. ‘Queries from a communicative teacher.’ English Language Teaching Journal 40/2.


Moskowitz, G. 1978. Caring and Sharing in the Foreign Language Class: A Source-book on Humanistic Techniques. Rowley, Mass.: Newbury House.


Nunan, D. 1988. The Learner-centred Curriculum. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Nunan, D. 1989. Design Tasks for the Communicative Classroom. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Richards, J. and T. Rodgers. (eds.) 1986. Approaches and Methods in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Rivers, W. 1983. Communicating Naturally in a Second Language: Theory and Practice in Language Teaching. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Roberts, J.T. 1982. ‘Recent developments in ELT.’ Language Teaching 15/2 – 3.


Rogers, C.R. 1961. On Becoming a Person. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin.


Schachter, J. 1998. ‘Recent Research in Language Learning Studies: Promises and Problems.’ Language Learning 48/4.


Scovel, T. 1983. ‘Emphasizing Language: a reply to Humanism, Neoaudiolingualism, and Notional-Functionalism’ in Clarke and Handscombe (eds.) 1983.


Stevick, E.W. 1990. Humanism in Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Terrell, T. 1982. ‘The Natural Approach to language teaching: an update.’ Modern Language Journal 66/2.


Wardhaugh, R. 1998. ‘Déjà vu? A Response to Schachter.’ Language Learning 48/4.


Bogotá, December 17, 2003/ Revised on December 26, 2020



Bernhard Wahr



All rights reserved. Apart from any fair dealing for the purposes of research or private study, or criticism or review, no part of this article may be reproduced, stored or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing from the publisher.