What’s in your head? Van Patten on language teaching

In his video lectures What everyone should know about second language acquisition, Bill VanPatten attacks a number of myths about language learning and teaching. He claims  foreign language teachers don’t know about second language research findings, and so are unable to make teaching decisions based on this research.

Following the adage there’s nothing more practical than a good theory, VanPatten gives an overview of theories about the nature of language with a view to dispelling some myths. Part 1 introduces the following, then develops the first point:

  1. What’s in your head is not what you think is there.
  2. Practice is not what it’s cracked up to be.
  3. Communication is distinct from mental representation.
  4. You cannot automatically blame the first language.
  5. Language acquisition isn’t always about aptitude.
  6. Acquisition is just too complex to reduce to simple ideas – there are no shortcuts to language acquisition.

What we know about language is an implicit, abstract representation, but the rules we know are not “the rules in your head” and the mental representation is nothing like pedagogical grammatical rules (in grammar books).

  1. re- means do again
    rerecord, remake, redo – to do these things again
    Possible with some verbs (resurface) but not others (*repet)
  2. ain’t isn’t good English
    I ain’t got none versus *I’aint have any
    Even if it’s not standard language, it still has a grammar (in your head)
  3. Y/N question formation
    Does Bill study second language acquisition?
    Does study Bill study second acquisition acquisition?
    Studies Bill second language acquisition?

What speakers have in their minds is an abstract system. But these cannot be stated simply; there are no rules to be learned.

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Pedagogical rules describe the surface parts of the sentence but not the underlying information (features and operations) which are really inside your head. Much of the grammatical information is actually stored in words.

How about conjugation and declensions? What people have are networks of words with connections to meanings, inflections and grammatical information.

In our heads, we have information that governs what is possible and not possible, and also networks that encode meaning and grammatical information. We don’t have rules in the sense that we teach or discuss as language teachers.

How does this information get into our heads? VanPatten tackles this issue in the subsequent video clips.



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