Is language a brain software, or a social game?

There seems to be a long-standing and far-reaching divide, in the academic circles concerned with language studies, over the nature of language. One major hypothesis is that language is in our minds and it relies on mental resources, such as memory. It is basically an inventory of units (words) and a set of rules. The other major view is that language emerges and develops in the interaction, or in the endeavour to communicate so as to get things done in the real world. A large number of specialists are positioned in-between – by which I mean to say that the academic world is not simply split into two groups, but that there are a great many positions, further away from, or closer to, either of the two main stances.

So what, we can wonder? Why do we teachers care whether language is a set of rules or a social convention? I think it matters a great deal more than one could guess at first sight. Every teacher teaches their subject exactly the way they see it. If a teacher believes language is an inventory of words and rules, this is how (or what) they will teach: translations, word lists, gap-fill exercises and so on. If a teacher believes in language as a vehicle for communication, as a tool to get through to one’s fellows, they will teach it through activities, games, discussions, role-plays. Of course, any combination of the two will reflect the combination of the two major theoretical hypotheses I mentioned above, but the weight of one or another of the tool kits will indicate how far the teacher tilts to one or the other side.

So far so good. And where do I stand, as a teacher, in my praxis?

I am also one of those standing in-between, though I have no theoretical arguments of my own. In practice, however, I have over the years developed an empirical method that is centred on learners’ level. With beginner and pre-intermediate users, the teaching that I do is heavily bent on the social side. In the past I thought it was in the name of fluency, of ‘let’s learn to swim first, before we look at the fine tricks’; in the name of ‘survival kits’ that any language user, especially at beginner levels, should be equipped with. Now, having done a bit of theory, I think it is rather in the name of enabling the learners to play the game, instead of telling them of rules and inventories.

As they advance and become independent in language use, learners sometimes want more. And what is that, more specifically? Typically, it is accuracy, range and naturalness of expression. This of course is also most often a goal to do with the same social game, as learners wish to play it better, but to me as a teacher this amounts to a deeper exploration of language in its mechanisms of meaning-making: several ways of expressing the same idea, organising discourse, understanding rules so that one can use them in trickier contexts, discovering style and connotations, genre conventions and so on. This means that my lessons inevitably become more cognitively demanding; that I tend to challenge my learners to reflect, associate and transfer contents into their context. The lessons are not less interactive – but they rely much more on learners’ processing abilities.

What is more, this is not just the way I do it. I think it is an integral part of making progress. Progress in language learning means different things at various stages. There are of course the learners who ‘know’ more than they can actually produce, either because they lack the practice or because they are shy. There are the learners who master the language at the level that is appropriate to their context (e.g. job), but need training with specific genres, like presentations, telephoning or even small talk. In such cases progress is not pinned to a specific overall language level. But if I need to run a course at level B2 for instance, I am sure that the intellectual abilities of the learners will be more heavily brought into play during the lesson than if the course is run at level A2. This is because more advanced language is generated and supported by more complex thinking and tasks. So progress on the scale of language performance will have to match a level of cognitive abilities including memory and noticing ability, but also, for example, the ability to think abstractly, to analyse and synthesize. Life experience may also come into play, as it may support processing and conceptualising. If assessing language performance honestly, not based on otherwise indispensable standards, one would be forced to assess intelligence at the same time.