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Closely related to the mentalist view is the linguist Noam Chomsky who advocates a rather different structuralism. Indeed, Chomsky was one of the first scholars if not the first one to come up with a new orientation of this linguistic branch based on the Cartesian philosophy.
The advocates of the mentalist theory think that language is produced by the inborn capacity that every individual possesses. This inborn capacity which is referred to as LAD (Language Acquisition Device) is what a child develops from birth by exposure to the language of his community; it is this language which acts as a trigger to exploit his potentialities. This Language Acquisition Device has certain control over the language structures which are, for the mentalists, innate and universal. As Clark (1975:310) puts it The ultimate product of LAD is an internalized system of rules which characterize the structure of a language, and which underlie both comprehension and production.'
Now, mentalism considers that language is a highly
integrated system of rules. Although Chomsky saw no direct application
of his theory to language teaching, some advocates did find ways to relate
his theory to foreign language instruction. Hence, they considered that
foreign language learning is basically the comprehension of the rules of
the language through which the students will be able to create linguistic
For the mentalists, not all responses need a reinforcement; there is clear evidence from children acquiring or learning a language that some responses have been learnt without a previous reward. Apparently this is the case with students learning a foreign language: they can produce some target language forms which they have never heard or practised before, especially when dealing with regular past tense forms.
If, on the one hand, behaviourism advocates the use of carefully controlled and graded material, mentalism on the other, is for the use of extensive samples of natural language. Learning will then take place by a process of trial and error of genuine pieces of language.
At this point, Wilkins (1972:172) mentions that
'What is needed in language teaching, therefore, is adequate exposure to
the target language. The greater the exposure to meaningful language the
more effectively the learner can formulate and revise his hypotheses about
the structure of the language.'
Language teaching aims
For mentalism the goal of language teaching is the development of linguistic competence; it is the content of language which is the most fundamental aspect to be developed. Performance in language is a rather imperfect representation of thought and as such, sometimes manifests itself by lapses and the like.
Hubbard et al. (1983:133) state that 'The mentalist
would say that a speaker of a language knows his language; the behaviourist
that he is able to perform in it. This distinction between knowledge and
performance is a crucial one for teachers of foreign languages.'
Then they go on establishing the difference between competence and performance.
For them 'Competence is knowing what is grammatically correct; performance
is what actually occurs in practice. Chomsky regarded performance as a
faulty representation of competence, caused by psychological restrictions,
such as memory lapses and limitations, distractions, changes of direction
half-way through a sentence, hesitation and so on.'
Drills and repetition
With regard to this point, the mentalists argue that the most important purpose of the drilling technique is to acquaint the student with the rules of the language. A fact underlying this theory is that constant and adequate exposure to the foreign language is what is really needed in learning.
Similarly, Wilkins (1972:173) says, 'Drilling
is a technique for maximizing active language production by every pupil
in a way that allows him to be reinforced immediately. But it is hard to
see the value of this if there is doubt about the notions 'active response',
'repetition' and 'reinforcement'. If the pupil is not to learn the structure
of the language by hearing and constructing large numbers of analogous
sentences, how is he to do it? The temptation is clear to fall back on
the traditional procedure of expounding a rule and then testing the learning
of that rule through exercises.'
Rules of language
Here the mentalists think that (1) semi-grammatical sentences should be accepted as a normal stage in the process of acquiring native-like competence, and (b) analysis is a necessary part of the learning of a foreign language.
A very important notion in the mentalist theory is the creative aspect of language; in more specific terms, the faculty to produce an infinite number of sentences based on a finite number of rules. As evidence of this aspect of creativity, they mention the case of the speaker who can utter original and new expressions which we cannot ascertain that he has previously used.
The idea that students should be allowed to create
their own sentences based on an understanding of the rule is widely accepted
in many classrooms. There is a finite number of grammatical rules in the
system and with a knowledge of these, an infinite number of sentences can
be performed. Chomsky maintains that language is not a form of behaviour;
on the contrary, it is an intricate rule-based system and a large part
of language acquisition is the learning of this system. It is competence
that a child gradually acquires, and it is this language competence that
allows the child to be creative as a language user.
Mentalists state that (1) it is unnecessary to correct the student if he has conveyed his meaning, and (2) making mistakes is an inevitable part of the language learning process.
Focusing on (1), the mentalists consider that
language expressions should be meaningful so that communication can take
place. Therefore, it is normal that in the process of language learning,
the student's utterances be but an imperfect representation of the real
As to (2) it is important to know the viewpoints of some methodologists. For example, Wilkins (1972:170) says that 'It is possible that it is not only inevitable, but also necessary since it provides the only means that the child has of finding out the limits to the domain of the rules that he is formulating.' Likewise, Hubbard et al. (1983:144) point out that 'The learner is constantly attempting to solve problems and make sense of the linguistic evidence around him. Consequently, error is inevitable; it is, in fact, an integral part of the learning process .... Students will produce errors because their hypotheses about the new language are wrong or incomplete.'
Mentalists, in their turn, think that meaning should never be subordinated to other considerations; form without meaning is not language. In addition, they consider that language involves students attaching meaning to the words and forms they are saying.
In relation to this concept, Wilkins (1972:174) says that 'The learning of a foreign language should therefore be a meaningful activity throughout. There seem to be no implications as to how meaning should be taught, only the conclusion that it is a most important aspect of language teaching.'
Many advocates of this theory agree that in a
classroom setting, an explanation in the native language or a translation
is most of the times necessary to avoid misunderstandings or misconceptions
by the students.
It seems that the learning of a foreign language implies rather than an application of a single theory a balanced approach derived from certain psycholinguistic assumptions as well as a set of conditions which will determine successful language learning. We shall now proceed to mention some of these conditions which may show teachers the complexity of the problem. It is worth noting that most of the considerations listed below have been mentioned (and others will be mentioned ) throughout the chapters of this book.
(1) There is no evidence that one language learning theory alone has been able to explain satisfactorily the learning of a foreign language.
(2) Foreign language learning is a complex process which involves a real commitment from those responsible for its achievement i.e. teachers, students, education authorities, curriculum planners, syllabus designers.
(3) The insights provided by a language learning theory can be helpful to the foreign language teacher provided that the teacher can verify their validity through classroom practices.
(4) The major focus of teaching is indeed learning and all efforts should be led to help students find the most suitable conditions to attain their goals.
(5) The amount of time devoted to the exposure to the foreign language can largely determine the progress that the student may achieve. A large portion of that time must be used primarily to practise the target language.
(6) The value of formal learning implies to some extent thoroughly qualified teachers concerned with the attainment of goals set up by educational planners.
(7) Learning styles, experience and other learner's characteristics (age, motivation, aptitude, specific abilities) should be taken into account when planning teaching strategies.
(8) Learning strategies must be led to fulfill the learner's needs which should be seriously taken into account in designing both the curriculum and the syllabus.
(9) Learning and practising the language skills requires classes of reasonable size and level of progress.
(10) The selection of material should be suitable for the needs,
interests and capacities of the learner.
2 One fundamental requirement for learning a foreign
language is a very large amount of time to learn it. Do you consider
that the mentalist theory has grounds to support this assumption?
Design a presentation in order to facilitate the learning of the simple tense with regular verbs as the grammatical structure that you want to teach. Focus only on the third person singular. Explain on which theory you would base your teaching.
Clark, R. 1975. Adult theories, child strategies and their implications for the language teacher. In J.P.B. Allen and S. Pit Corder (eds.) Papers in applied linguistics. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Hubbard, P., H. Jones, B. Thornton, and R. Wheeler. 1983. A training course for TEFL. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental concepts of language teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Wilkins, D.A. 1972. Linguistics in language teaching. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.
Wilkins, D.A. 1974. Second language learning and teaching. London: Edward Arnold (Publishers) Ltd.