The Ever Pervasive Ideology of the Good Language Learner

What is a good language learner? Is it someone who learns a good language or someone who is good at learning languages? Or could it possibly be someone who has dedicated a lot of time and effort to the learning of a language we value and, therefore, we attribute the word good to them because we value their efforts and interest in doing so. Such questions go to the heart of the ideology of English Language Teaching. We do not, for instance, describe native speakers and the manner in which they learn their mother tongue in this way, as both the desire and need to learn such a language are seemingly unquestionable and indivisible. If desire and need are indivisible, we feel no need to say they are either good or bad language learners, or good for having taken the time, they are simply called native speakers.

Of course, some have asked how native language is learnt and there was an enormous, if essentially sterile, debate between Chomsky and Skinner on the matter. Whilst Chomsky had a very interesting and sharp critique of Skinner and his Behaviourist methodology, Chomsky never really specified the mechanism by which the infant was motivated to learn. However, this Cognitivist reaction to Behaviourism did lead later theorists of learning in general to specify how important the students’ motivations and attitudes were in learning. And it was these theorists who made a distinction (not for young infants mind but for older children and adults) between intrinsic motivations and extrinsic motivations, often arguing the former was a more powerful and sustainable grounds for learning than the latter (and indeed ethically superior).

Indeed such a distinction haunts ELT teacher training manuals, even if writers and students get rather tied up in knots with the whole subject. Here is what one TEFLer (H.D. Sewell 2003) has to say in an internet paper on the subject:

Motivation and a positive attitude have also been correlated with language acquisition (Gardner 1985 in Lightbown and Spada 1999:56). In one construct, motivation can be seen as either integrative, relating to a desire to integrate into the L2 community, or instrumental, related to learning so as to use the L2 as an instrument to achieve a goal. Gardner and Lambert (1959 and 1972:141 in Larson-Freeman and Long 1991:173-4) suggest that both types of motivation may be equally powerful, but in different learning contexts, although integrative may be more sustainable. In another construct, motivation can be seen as either intrinsic or extrinsic. Brown (2000:164), citing himself (1990), Dornyei (1998), Dornyei and Csizer (1998), and Crookes and Schmidt (1991), suggests that intrinsic motivation, motivation from inside, is more powerful than extrinsic motivation, motivation from outside. While these two constructs of motivation are related, it is possible for a student to have any of the four combinations of the two constructs.

Surely there are six combinations (intrinsic / integrative, extrinsic / instrumental, intrinsic / instrumental, extrinsic / integrative, intrinsic / extrinsic, instrumental / integrative) but this does not matter as Sewell rightly gives up on the idea:

The relationships between attitude, motivation, and successful language learning seem unclear. Gardner (1979 in Larson-Freeman and Long 1991:175) suggests that attitude affects motivation and subsequent acquisition. Crookes and Schmidt suggest that motivation research has failed to adequately separate motivation and attitude (1991:501). Lightbown and Spada point out that “If the speaker’s only reason for learning the second language is external pressure, internal motivation may be minimal and general attitudes toward learning may be negative” (1999:56). This would suggest ineffective learning, yet this external pressure may arise from the need for good English skills to get a good job, and thus may provide the student with instrumental motivation, which can be as strong a motivator as integrative motivation. It has also been suggested that it may be success that fosters motivation and not motivation that fosters success (Strong 1984:10-2).

But despite the overwhelming vagueness of the distinctions being used (intrinsic could extend to anything as could extrinsic) they do persist in ELT theory. The question is not whether they are useful, they are clearly not, but why they persist. And it is here we must turn to a general critique of educational theory.

 Comrade Illich’s Deschooling Society and its Liberal / Conservative admirers

Obviously we are 100% in agreement with Illich when he said this of education in 1970

The university thus has the effect of imposing consumer standards at work and at home, and it does so in every part of the world and under every political system. The fewer university graduates there are in a country, the more their cultivated demands are taken as models by the rest of the population. The gap between the consumption of the university graduate and that of the average citizen is even wider in Russia, China, and Algeria than in the United States. Cars, airplane trips, and tape recorders confer more visible distinction in a socialist country where only a degree, and not just money, can procure them.

Education was then and is even more so now, an essential part of consumer society. A society where producer and consumer are separated and their social relationship mediated primarily through exchange relations (and not use values), where a market exists for mass produced goods other than basic necessities and where products are defined by built-in obsolescence and new product introduction. Education is both itself a commodity with a range of variously priced products on offer and a means of stratifying the market and defining one’s access to other key commodities available on that market. It is, we might say, not an instrument of learning but an instrument of perpetual accumulation and social inequality.

But there is, however, an echo of Illich in less revolutionary ideas of society and what such views share with Illich’s is a belief in a higher form of learning, in a better student, a form of learning and a student for whom the pleasure of learning is sufficient in itself. Where learning has not been corrupted by materialistic values or interested parties and can be returned to its innocent origin. Almost like the worker who happily gives up their weekend to help their boss out, or the mythical miner in Stalinist Russia (Stackhanov) who dug superhuman quantities of coal, all for the love of what they do and not tainted by self-interest.

Here is what comrade Illich says of precapitalist forms of learning in the university:

The ability of the university to fix consumer goals is something new. In many countries the university acquired this power only in the Sixties, as the delusion of equal access to public education began to spread. Before that the university protected an individual’s freedom of speech, but did not automatically convert his knowledge into wealth. To be a scholar in the Middle Ages meant to be poor, even a beggar. By virtue of his calling, the medieval scholar learned Latin, became an outsider worthy of the scorn as well as the esteem of peasant and prince, burgher and cleric. To get ahead in the world, the scholastic first had to enter it by joining the civil service, preferably that of the Church. The old university was a liberated zone for discovery and the discussion of ideas both new and old. Masters and students gathered to read the texts of other masters, now long dead, and the living words of the dead masters gave new perspective to the fallacies of the present day. The university was then a community of academic quest and endemic unrest.

So, in following Illich, the Utilitarians argue that education has become a worthless trinket, of no useful contribution to society. Their common complaints concern Media Studies or Peace Studies, and that the current education system does not do enough to prepare students for the real world (there is most definitely a strand of this in ELT thinking). Conservatives argue, rather conversely that education has been cheapened by simplistic utilitarianism and that students lack a thorough classical education (Shakespeare, Greek and Latin, rugby etc) which makes them a well-rounded person and social leader. And, of course, liberals argue that the spontaneously good and natural qualities of individuals have been perverted by the state and other monopolies; they are seemingly unable to comprehend that the concentration of knowledge on the one hand and regimentation of the learning system on the other is an inevitable consequence of the market system they worship.

Comrade Illich cannot be blamed for these views but in his appeal to a utopian view of learning (and indeed of the individual with his overtones of Rousseau) he inadvertently gives air to the system he wishes to suffocate. Just as work could become a lot more interesting and meaningful for all outside capitalism, so could learning. But again, like work, learning faces the real dilemma that there are certain areas or aspects which are simply not desirable to us (either temporarily or permanently). They require an effort above and beyond any immediate intrinsic reward (if such a thing really could exist). Will the revolution really abolish having to clean the lavatory bowl or having to get up early in the morning or will the revolutionised simply learn to love doing so? This voluntarism on behalf of Illich offers no real solution to the education of the labouring classes, it is only an imperative that we should learn to love that which we have to do and that it will coincide with a hidden nature hitherto unseen.

Comrade Bourdieu and a Historical Perspective

We would indeed argue, and we are following Bourdieu’s excellent essay The Possibility of Disinterested Action very closely here, that this very distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and between good learner and bad learner is a result of historical forces, a series of profound ruptures in the previous social order. For example, there is no economic interest until we distinguish the economy from the domestic economy (i.e. the exchange of commodities versus the simple reproduction of our necessities) and no art for art’s sake until we stipulate that the production of art is not governed by that aforementioned economic interest now delineated.  This apparent rupture between learning and motivation (or interest) is itself a historical product of capitalism. If the artist claims to be producing art for art’s sake, then such alleged disinterest is only made possible through capitalist relations and if the learner claims to be learning for the love of learning, then they too are talking from within the very foundations of  capitalist relations.

Of course no such thing exists as a disinterested action, all action has symbolic meaning (is all part of what Wittgenstein might term a Language Game) in which the agent participates, with other agents, in a carefully constructed series of conventions in order to satisfy certain biologically and socially determined needs.

To quote Bourdieu specifically:

In fact, there exist social universes in which the search for strictly economic profit can be discouraged by explicit norms or tacit injunctions…. The behaviors of honor in aristocratic or precapitalist societies have at their origin an economy of symbolic goods based on collective repression of interest and, more broadly, the truth of production and circulation, which tends to produce “disinterested” habitus, anti‐economic habitus, disposed to repress interests, in the narrow sense of the term (that is, the pursuit of economic profits), especially in domestic relations.

Now Capitalism is enormously contradictory in general and in education in particular. Whilst capitalism undermines existing hierarchical relations of authority (religion, the family, cultural identity etc) through the dominance of exchange relations, it separates the population into two opposing major social classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, and the former social class needs such relations (the very relations it is undermining) in order to justify its domination over the lower orders. It is from this contradiction that arise further contradictions in education

Capitalism in principle needs an educated work force but it doesn’t need it to be too educated, it only requires that it be trained in the skills sufficient to carry out the tasks necessary for capital accumulation. But, alas, like the payment of wages and the threat of unemployment, it must bribe and coerce the workforce into studying. This problem is further compounded with the need to use education to justify the hierarchies in society, but by making education less disinterested, i.e. the human capital theory where education is directly related to financial reward, it undermines its moral legitimacy. In short, the bumbling economics professor, who makes references to Greek mythology in their excuses for economic meltdown, might now seem less disinterested than they claim.

Modern capitalism seeks to impose 13 years of obligatory education on the masses by promising education is itself a joy (and thus unpaid) but also claim that the purpose of education is to seek financial reward. Is it any wonder TEFlers get all twisted up with their nonsense distinctions between extrinsic and intrinsic motivations, for the contradiction is written into the very nature of the educational enterprise itself.

Habermas, Dialogics and Reschooling Society

Habermas usefully identified a difference between instrumental action and communicative action, the former being goals imposed on others but the latter being  a set of complex open negotiations involving the actors. Freire and Ferrer i Guárdia (of course Ferrer i Guárdia predates the popularity of Habermas’ work) had it clear that education should involve this latter approach and thus make a more democratic and equal society.

We call this a dialogic approach because the student learns in order to transform themselves but also to transform the environment in which they live. To do this effectively learning must be contextual and reflective rather than passive. It must alter the power relations of society rather than simply replicate them.

This is the goal of comrade Illich but comrade Illich seeks to establish the same by abolishing formal educational structures. Thus we have a difference between spontaneous forms of education and a deliberate attempt to create a curriculum which prepares the lower orders to take power (or at least resist it).

Comrade IIlich was clearly aware that the Stalinist states were only paying lip service to such a libratory curriculum, and were in fact reproducing and indeed pioneering new forms of mindless capital accumulation. For Illich, therefore, it was necessary to deschool society to stop this domination taking place. However, this is surely self-defeating for if we follow his advice the community can only act by not acting. If it allows a vacuum in power then surely this vacuumn will only be filled by some other force. In short, and following Ferrer i Guárdia, the labouring classes must be prepared for power.

Ferrer i Guárdia stipulates that workers should be taught their own history in order that they change the future, which runs in an interesting contradiction to some of his own more spontaneous learning ideas which at times mirror those of Illich.

But what else of value can we learn from the ruling class if not the manner in which it prepares itself and its lieutenants for power? Is there anything more grotesque than their uniforms and their rituals of self-subordination? Look at the disgusting practices of fagging at Eton and their ridiculous uniforms of self-ridicule. We should not be fooled, however, for these wretched rituals of discipline are part of a careful physical, mental and spiritual preparation for power. Their born to rule arrogance is cultivated, it is not spontaneous. The architectonic dimensions of their education are nothing but the concrete preparations for rule over the masses. Indeed, even if their lieutenants are recruited from elsewhere, like the state educated sector, only their slavish devotion to the ruling class culture will assure them their appointed role as loyal servants.

Whilst we would not suggest replicating such a model, the task remains of combining the discipline required for learning and the attitudes required for taking power (solidarity and rebellion). The good learner must combine an assertiveness of their own needs with a willingness to submit to the needs of learning (where desire and need are not necessarily practically or immediately indivisible).

The good language learner, therefore, is both the student who asks for less homework (or no homework at all) or more homework. It is the student who seeks to negotiate the language learning curriculum in their own interests and those of their social class. It is the student capable, to some extent, of historicising and critiquing the very foundations of language teaching.

Our actions in the community as good teachers must be to prepare our students for power.

This is a reprint of an article appearing in FFG



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2 responses to “The Ever Pervasive Ideology of the Good Language Learner

  1. alexcase

    Although it’s good to see the relaunch of a blog I long supported, I am confused. I thought that you were both only going to give links on the old blog and that the new posts would be more about direct action. Neither seems to be the case. Also, can you please confirm that the relationship between the old bloggers and yourselves?

  2. Good points!!!
    If you have ever squatted a building, stolen the electricity supply and started to reach out to the local community before, you might appreciate some of the practical problems. This is probably the first squatted blog in history too, so we ask your patience.
    At the moment we are still very much acquainting ourselves with the building and all it has to offer but we are sure we will work out many of the practical problems soon.
    We can assure you that no harm has come to the very likeable and amenable marxistelf (or any of his friends) but as the weeks and months evolve we believe that people will understand very clearly what the occupation by FFG means and the different political and theoretical direction we take.
    The building was a very attractive one indeed with many people coming to its closed doors. We want to reopen the building for use and hope you come to visit us often.

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