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Saturday, November 5, 2011

TESL without cultural baggage

TESL without cultural baggage

Wolfgang B. Sperlich

Wednesday, 23 November 2011
Room OGGB5 (142), 2.15pm – 2.45pm


This paper defends the Saussurian distinction between langue and parole, as elaborated in Chomskyian linguistics. The implication for teaching ESL as langue is that it is independent of any cultural constructs (Sperlich 2008). Only when teaching various functions (parole) of ESL, can we include the often highly contested interfaces between language, thought and culture. I review the classic debate between those (Lenneberg 1953) who claim that indigenous thought and culture can be transmitted in non-indigenous languages, and others (Liddicoat 2002, Levinson et al. 2011) who, along various permutations of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, refute this proposition.

If TESL leads to International English as a lingua franca, as variously claimed (Crystal et al. 2010), one should adopt a conscious strategy to avoid all cultural references to do with the ‘indigenous’ speakers of English. At least one will avoid the accusation of aiding and abetting linguistic imperialism (Phillipson 1992). In this context I critique the CEFR level descriptors in as much as they may be culturally tainted. An alternative proposal is to adopt a Universal Culture (in analogy with Universal Grammar) as a context for language use, if only to give credence to the idea of the global village.

I present a scheme of TESL that emphasises the teaching/learning of English as biological structure (cf. bio-linguistics), making use of Universal Grammar (White 2003) and the various stages of inter-language (Selinker 1972). Also advocated is comparative language learning, as exemplified by research (Sperlich 2011) into the learning of Chinese anaphora rules by English and Korean speakers.

0.            Preamble

To avoid waking up with strange bed fellows, allow me a couple of statements of principle:

  • I am a strong supporter of socialist language diversity, hence minority languages and indigenous political rights – including Maori Sovereignty – and I am a fan of many aspects of Melanesian and Polynesian cultures, quite apart from also being a linguist specializing in Polynesian and Melanesian languages
  • Much of this paper is about theoretical linguistics and its implications for the praxis of TESL – and the question if (English) culture has anything to do with it

1.             Langue and Parole (de Saussure 1922)

That language, thought and culture are linked in inseparable ways is an old idea, often espoused by patriots (‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’ says the archetypal linguist Samuel Johnson) such as Wilhelm von Humboldt who saw language as the expression of the spirit of a nation. Also well known are the various permutations of the Sapir–Whorf hypothesis that claims that different languages account for different cultures and systems of thought. The scientist widely credited – especially by Chomsky (2004) who also calls him the founder of modern bio-linguistics - with debunking these theories is Eric Lenneberg (1953, 1967) who in association with other scientists set out to investigate colour terminologies across different languages, and finding that the differences were of a systematic order – in other words, the differences could be reduced to a common set. Berlin and Kay continued this line of inquiry in their seminal 1969 volume of Basic Color Terms: Their Universality and Evolution. At the same time it was Chomsky (Sperlich 2006) who made a principled distinction between language competence and language performance (or use), following de Saussure’s earlier delineation between langue and parole. Chomsky maintained that the study of language competence (langue) is a science in itself and largely independent of language use or performance (parole). He also maintained that the studies into language use – as for example in the schools of linguistic functionalism and pragmatics – are perfectly legitimate fields of inquiry and that many interesting results have been obtained. While both of these disciplines may inform each other in a broad sense, there is nevertheless a clear distinction, as say, in other domains of the natural sciences, e.g. between physics and chemistry.

2.             Cognitive/functional/pragmatic/Gricean (Grice 1981) positions

As this principled distinction is defended throughout the paper presented here, I will just mention a few prominent proponents who to this day maintain the opposite course. The school of pragmatics under the Gricean (or neo-Gricean) umbrella has as one of its champions Stephen C. Levinson, who, at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in Nijmegen, leads a well-known team of cognitive linguists. In a recent paper (2011) Levinson et al. explore cross-cultural variation in spatial cognition by comparing spatial reconstruction tasks by Dutch and Namibian elementary school children. They come to the following conclusions:

Data show a correlation between dominant linguistic spatial frames of reference and performance patterns in non-linguistic spatial memory tasks.

These results indicate a difference not only in preference but also in competence and suggest that spatial language and non-linguistic preferences and competences in spatial cognition are systematically aligned across human populations.

The controversial claim – from a bio-linguistic perspective – is that there are ‘differences in language competences’ between Dutch and Namibian speakers and that these differences are echoed in the ‘non-linguistic preferences’ which we take to be a cover term for culture. One might want to employ Lenneberg and have him demonstrate that differences in ‘spatial language’ use are due to environmental filters, and that the underlying language competence is exactly the same for Dutch and Namibian speakers. Levinson’s use of the term ‘human populations’ should focus on the ‘human’ species element where there is no argument that ‘humans’ are a species exactly because they share 100% of their basic genetic make-up – the language capacity included. Few scientists would propose that there are ‘culture’ genes as much as it is ridiculously speculative to suggest that there are genes for religion, traditional dress, food and music preferences and other human features that inform human cultures. Levinson’s terminology is dangerously close to equating ‘human populations’ with ‘human cultures’ that have the capacity to differ starkly, at least on the surface of socio-economic factors, as between Dutch and Namibian ‘populations’. On the other hand there is no doubt that the Nijmegen team is doing very interesting research into ‘spatial language’ as a phenomenon of language use (parole) – one would just wish that they leave it at that.

A somewhat bizarre version of the same theme is a proposition by another well-known language = thought/culture proponent, Claire Kramsch, who in a 2009 interview makes the following observation:

The more people speak English around the world the less people understand one another. So it’s this irony that we’re moving into an era where more and more people speak English and yet less and less do they understand one another because through English they are thinking, they speak English but they think French, or they speak English and they think Hindi. And so it becomes an invisible multilingualism behind the English that they speak and I think applied linguistics has a lot to contribute to that understanding of what it means to have a multilingual mentality, a multilingual competence.

Presumably one solution to this conundrum would be if we all become native speakers of English, hence we will all be able to think on the same wave length. As it stands, I, as a native speaker of German, am presenting to you in English what I think in German and unless you are a German who can speak English you will not understand a word I am saying here. Of course the German who has learnt ESOL will have to second-guess my German thoughts that are encapsulated in my ESOL, for it is really quite impossible to translate my German thoughts into English anyway. Such an extreme version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis only helps to confuse the hell out of everybody. One wonders how, according to Kramsch, ‘applied linguistics’ can shed light on ‘what it means to have a multilingual mentality, a multilingual competence’. Since it seems impossible to acquire a ‘multilingual mentality’ due to the assertion that one can only think in one’s native language, what would be the point of acquiring a ‘multilingual competence’? Indeed the logical conclusion would be that only native speakers have native language competence and a language learner cannot ever attain anything resembling native-like competency. Does Kramsch allow for the possibility to grow up bi-lingual, hence bi-mental? What exactly does Kramsch imply when we learn a second language like ESOL? It hardly bears thinking about it.

Influential in language-culture connection in language learning is also Liddicoat (2002:5) who noted that ‘culture shapes what we say, when we say it, and how we say it from the simplest language we use to the most complex. It is fundamental to the way we speak, write, listen and read’. Such assumptions – paraded as fact – give rise to an almost fanatical belief that culture MUST be the main part of the language learning curriculum. Adherents from New Zealand include Heather Richards & Clare Conway (AUT) who presented a recent AKTESOL workshop entitled ‘Intercultural Language Teaching’.

3.             SLA

Let us instead consider the generally accepted mechanisms of learning a ‘foreign (or second)’ language – for we have a long tradition all around the world for doing so (the term SLA is misleading inasmuch it confuses ‘acquisition’ with ‘learning’). Given that we still have some 6,000 different languages – however fast they are being diminished – in the world, there is still ample opportunity, if not a necessity, to learn a few of them. Throughout our linguistic history we have had languages evolve and disappear according to the whims of ‘population’ movements, and as one dispassionate linguist observed ‘it’s a numbers game’, i.e. if there are enough speakers of a language it will survive. In many linguistically diverse regions there is often a language that assumes the role of the lingua franca, or else a mixed language emerges, what with intermediate pidgin languages and emerging Creole languages, just to mention a few scenarios. In Europe we have know Latin as the lingua franca for higher education for many centuries, we’ve had French as the language of diplomacy, and last but not least we now have English, not only for Europe but for the whole wide world (Crystal et al. 2010).

4.             ESOL

So, let’s learn ESOL. From long experience we know it is a task we can accomplish quite well. We can all cite two English literary greats who started out life as speakers of foreign languages - and well into their adulthood - before they did ESOL: Conrad and Nabokov. Then there are countless examples of those writers who – whilst having a foreign native language – were forced by circumstances to do all their formal education in English, be it in the Indian subcontinent, in the Caribbean, in parts of Africa or in the South Pacific. This colonial hang-over has now become the vogue all around the world, especially in Asia (e.g. Taiwan, Sperlich 2008), where ambitious parents send their off-spring to all manner of English schools, from kindergarten level to tertiary level – the latter often in the core English-speaking countries where TESOL has become a major industry. Indeed the trend is to send children overseas even at secondary and primary/elementary school levels. The benefits touted are total immersion, linguistically and culturally. Realistically, the former mainly refers to the teachers who can only speak English, while the latter refers to the physical environment like shopping and leisure activities. For a while the concept of the ‘home stay’ was at the centre of the idea, i.e. a student being billed with native English speakers, hence actually living and breathing English all day round. This has been watered down considerably, at least here in Auckland, where the majority of ESOL students now ‘live’ with people of their own linguistic background, or, if they are adults, rent rooms with their fellow students. As such they quickly establish their own student sub-cultures (complete with shops, restaurants and amusement centres) and speak English only when challenged in their ESOL classes – and as there is an increasing number of PTEs owned and operated by, say, Korean and Chinese entrepreneurs who staff their marketing and student services with speakers of Korean and Chinese, there is often a tension arising between the management and the native English speaking teachers who are hauled in to explain their lack of success in the eyes (and ears)  of the students who complain in their native language to the owners of the school.

5.             Accreditation

Many an ESOL school, private or public, is thus challenged to provide the best possible tuition, at least as charged by NZQA and/or TEC who accredited them in the first place. Indeed there has been such a proliferation of accreditation of mainly PTEs – all with their own programs and certificates – that quality control has been more or less abandoned by NZQA, what with various PTEs in the news about cheating, fraud and immigration offences. To this end NZQA is presently engaged in a ‘review’ of TESOL practices with a brief to reduce the proliferation of programs and certificates. One assumes that the PTE lobby will resist any regulation lest it will hurt their profits by way of having to provide quality education that employs qualified staff and gives them adequate resources – the idea of renting a floor of a defunct office building the in the CBD and put a few chairs and desks in it, and then sell it on-line as a premier ESOL educational institute, must surely be restricted by rules and regulations. In terms of curricula one must demand a much higher level of scientific input rather than the ubiquitous statements about teaching ‘reading, writing, speaking and listening’. A foreign languages teacher in NZ who is registered as a teacher at secondary level usually has a university degree in the language concerned plus a one-year teaching diploma. One must at least demand the same for ESOL teachers at the so-called ‘tertiary’ (i.e. post-secondary) level that is prevalent for the ESOL industry in NZ. Given the present hotchpotch of ESOL programmes we can only wonder what some of the possible outcomes are.

6.             Quality assurance and assessment

This then leads us to the vexed question as to how best assess language learning in general and learning ESOL in particular. The cliché is of the teacher yielding the red pen, marking all the mistakes and writing sarcastic comments about what the learner cannot do. Many a sensitive soul was irreparably damaged in this way – or so they say. Swinging the pendulum the other way we are now much more polite and state what the learner can do, and try to assess him/her accordingly. I say “try” because there must be a caveat to this procedure: we need a list of what the learner SHOULD be able to do and then tick of the items of what he/she CAN do. Depending on our assessment criteria we can then fail or pass a learner. If we follow the dictum of mastery learning we demand that at least 80% of this “should know” knowledge is demonstrated by various assessment techniques. If we follow the traditional bell curve of educational attainment we demand only a 50-60% rate but we also re-adjust the scores in order to obtain a 50% success/failure rate for the whole cohort.

Regardless of the grading/scoring scheme used, we need to know against which criteria to assess - quite apart from having an assessment procedure that is fair, valid and reliable. Both academic and vocational knowledge and skill sets can be roughly categorized according to common sense levels, such as beginner through to accomplished/advanced – whereby the highest attainable level is always a certain problem to define accurately. This is particularly true for language levels: if we accept the linguistic cum cultural relativists’ concepts of ESOL, we accept that it is both theoretically and practically impossible to achieve the same level that is attributed to a ‘native’ speaker. If we follow the bio-linguistic model we accept it is quite possible to learn a language to the same level of competence as a native speaker has. In other words it is quite possible to become fully bi-lingual or even polyglot. If we accept the latter scheme – as I suggest we should – we have a fairly precise definition for the highest attainment level in language learning, namely native-like command and competence for speaking and listening.

If reading and writing skills are stipulated as well – as they are as a matter of course these days – we can copy the various school curricula criteria, assuming that in NZ, for example, the end of compulsory education at around Y11 also signals an adequate skill level for reading and writing (see scheme below that indicates at least a Level 4 or 5 but more ideally Level 7). For those a bit more ambitious we might go up to Y13 or even to 101 university English.

The writers of the current NZ English Curriculum (up to secondary level) were ill advised to make a principled split between active/productive and passive/receptive language skills, lumping together ‘speaking, writing and presenting’ (active/productive) and ‘listening, reading, viewing’ (passive/receptive). Apart from that they seemed to have the good sense to also define the levels in terms of ‘language features’ and we can use these as an example (at Level 5):


·      uses a wide range of oral, written, and visual language features to create meaning and effect and to sustain interest
·      uses an increasing range of vocabulary to communicate precise meaning
·      uses a wide range of text conventions, including grammatical and spelling conventions, appropriately, effectively, and with increasing accuracy.


·      identifies oral, written, and visual language features and understands their effects
·      uses an increasing vocabulary to make meaning
·      understands how a range of text conventions work together to create meaning and effect
·      understands that authors have different voices and styles and can identify those differences.

Unfortunately one can easily discern the terminological confusion that reigns here. All of the descriptors are couched in terms of language USE whereby even the distinction between active and passive language skills is clouded, to say the least. The use of adverbs of quantity/quality is a notorious device in advancing through levels: ‘wide range’ and ‘increasing range’ are simply applied to descriptors at lower levels. How we can assess reading and writing according to the language features stipulated above remains a functional mystery.

At least at the vocabulary level there is now a lot of corpus research available that makes quantitative statements possible. Indeed many language teaching curricula stipulate the minimal vocabulary required for a particular level. A notable development in this area is English Profile which aims to ‘create a ‘profile’ or set of Reference Level Descriptions for English linked to the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR)’. While I will criticize CEFR quite severely below, one can point to the positive idea to establish sets of vocabulary items that are a minimal requirement for the various CEFR levels. Their aims are very ambitious in that the information content will cover the following areas:
  • contains words, phrases, phrasal verbs and idioms
  • presents the level of each meaning of a word in CEFR order, to suggest learning priorities
  • provides detailed dictionary-style entries with clear definitions, grammatical information and
    guidewords to meanings
  • includes audio and written pronunciations
  • contains many real examples, from dictionaries and from actual learners at an appropriate level
  • can be searched according to different filters, including parts of speech, grammar, usage, topic and

What I have just discovered though in the latest on-line version for A1-B2 vocabulary is that there is a tick box for HIDE CULTURALLY SENSITIVE WORDS. Truly amazing! I typed in words like ‘shit’ but they were not on the list with or without ticking the box. I happened to check ‘abuse’ and true enough, when un-checked it produces the following result:



Dictionary examples:
Cambridge Learner CorpusLearner example:

and with cultural sensitivity box ticked one gets the following message for ‘abuse’:

No search results were found in the British English Vocabulary Profile 'A1-B2'.

This is truly ridiculous!

English Profile has also branched out into corpus linguistics with reference to grammar and phonology (see recent papers from English Profile Network Seminar Series 2011 in Brno). http://www.cambridge.org/cz/elt/news/news_article/item6680885/?site_locale=cs_CZ

This seems somewhat counterproductive in that it only confirms what we already know via comparative syntax and phonology studies. In the grammar paper by Salamoura (2011) we are treated to corpus data of ESOL exam scripts covering some 135 L1 languages – regaling us with concordances of frequent mistakes. This makes no sense since 135 languages are mixed up in the pot, knowing full well that each individual language has its separate ‘error’ range in relation to L2 (English). The same is true for phonology. For further discussion see my chapter 12 TESL and the use of comparative grammars.

7.             The role of L1 when learning L2

So, as can be seen, to arrive at skill levels for reading and writing is a contestable process – after all these are ‘learned’ skills – while the criteria for full command/competence in speaking and listening are defined by what all native speakers are capable of when they reach the age of five or so. In other words they have full access to the rules of grammar (syntax, morphology, phonology) and can generate and derive an infinite number of sentences – constrained only by memory, time and other output factors such as cultural and socio-linguistic filters. For a language learner above the age of five, there is never a point zero – or tabula rasa – with regards to L2, even though we employ the term ‘beginner’ at entry level. L1 (the native tongue) is the means by which to learn L2. As we further assume that L1 arose from UG via the LAD, we can also assume that the learner has some recourse to UG, depending on how petrified L1 has become in relation to UG. People who are said to have a talent for learning foreign languages are likely to have preserved a cognitive flexibility that allows them to access UG and relatively quickly fix the parameters for L2 (and L3, etc.). These processes are poorly understood in terms of bio-linguistics, psychology and learning theories. As always with human ignorance, it is replaced by myths, superstition and old wives tales. Hence some people are more talented than others but nobody knows why.

Since I will try my best to hammer home my bias towards bio-linguistics in the rest of this paper, I will just mention one example at this point, especially as one would expect many empirical studies to support it, i.e. the opponents often deriding the perceived lack of it. It is of course notoriously difficult to study ‘language in the brain’ but there are all sorts of interesting advances in neuro-linguistics that appear to support the tenets of bio-linguistics. One of my current favourites is research done by Prof. Dr. Angela D. Friederici
Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences,
Angela Friederici (2011) which is summarized on her Max Planck web-site as follows:

Infants are able to learn grammatical regularities in a novel language surprisingly early and at a remarkable speed. In a study at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences in Leipzig, researchers working with Angela Friederici showed that the brains of babies were able to learn grammatical relationships between sentence elements in less than 15 minutes and reacted to errors that broke these rules. This was investigated by playing recordings of sentences in Italian to four month old German babies and taking EEG measurements.

In other words, if babies can discern rules of syntax in ‘foreign’ languages, there should be processes to re-create such discernments between L1 and L2 even at adult level.

8.             NZQA, Common European Framework Reference (CEFR) and problems with equivalence

In any case, second language learning then proceeds by various highways and byways, never in a straight line, reaching plateaus, dedifferentiated by active and passive modes, and generally aided by the ESOL publishing industry that churns out the same old schemes, over and over again. The two pillars of English English teaching, Oxford and Cambridge, run the show with admirable tenacity and are in full control in terms of imposing an outdated functional/pragmatic understanding of language learning. This extends to the efforts by the EU to come up with common standards for language learning in the linguistically challenged EU region. Hence everybody in the ESOL industry now pays attention to the latest developments in the Common European Framework Reference (CEFR) levels. This extends to the colonies – I will only speak for New Zealand though. The NZ regulatory agency for ESOL, the NZ Qualifications Authority (as copied from its Australian model), NZQA, has caught on as well.

In a recent (2010) NZQA Report of External Evaluation and Review of a private ESOL school is was noted as a sign of excellence that the school used CEFR as benchmarking, and by explaining CEFR as follows:

The Common European Framework of Reference for Languages (CEFR) is used to set clear targets for achievements within language learning. It has become accepted as a way of benchmarking language ability, and for evaluating outcomes in an internationally comparable manner.

Indeed, while composing this paper, NZQA further strengthened this trend by publishing a review of the ESOL qualifications, reducing a plethora of qualifications to just five New Zealand Certificates in EL and one New Zealand Diploma in EL (note the change from ESOL to EL):

Proposed New Zealand Qualifications in English Language (EL)

NZ Certificate in EL (Foundation) (Level 1)
NZ Certificate in EL
 (Level 1)
NZ Certificate in EL
(Level 2)
NZ Certificate in EL (with strands in General/Workplace/Academic English)
(Level 3)
NZ Certificate in EL (with strands in General/Workplace/Academic English)
(Level 4)
NZ Diploma in EL (with strands in Professional /Academic English)
 (Level 5)


IELTS: 1 - 2


3.5 – 4.5

3.5 – 6.0
B1 – B2
5.0 – 6.0


To gauge equivalents in education or skill levels that individuals, organisations and whole countries adopt, is a notoriously difficult task; the main reason being that such levels are fairly arbitrary, and one can argue whether or not one can assign any levels at all, at least on a scientific basis. In the case of NZQA – which adopts 10 levels across the whole education system – one can clearly see the confusion that reigns. At least they could have adopted the CERF – IELTS equivalents that seem to be commonly accepted in Europe, as given below:

A 1
A 2
B 1
B 2
C 1
C 2

4.0 – 5.0
5.5 – 6.5
7.0 – 8.0
8.5 - 9

To further demonstrate the confusion about equivalents, one may consider the table which is quoted in a presentation by Paul de Jong (2009):

note: the NQF levels refer to the UK version of education levels

As can be seen these equivalent values are out of synch with both tables above. Quite apart from problems with equivalence, there is of course the big question as to the validity of individual level schemes such as proposed by CERF.

What follows is a critique of CEFR, exemplifying some of the points made above in describing the differing positions taken by proponents of bio-linguistics versus functional/pragmatic/cognitive schools of linguistics.

The complete 264 page text of the English version document Common European Framework of Reference for Languages can be accessed via www.uk.cambridge.org/elt. In chapter 2 (p. 9) we are introduced to the ‘approach’ (sic) taken:

Accordingly, any form of language use and learning could be described as follows:

Language use, embracing language learning, comprises the actions performed by persons who as individuals and as social agents develop a range of competences, both general and in particular communicative language competences. They draw on the competences at their disposal in various contexts under various conditions and under various constraints to engage in language activities involving language processes to produce and/or receive texts in relation to themes in specific domains, activating those strategies which seem most appropriate for carrying out the tasks to be accomplished. The monitoring of these actions by the participants leads to the reinforcement or modification of their competences.

  • Competences are the sum of knowledge, skills and characteristics that allow a person to perform actions.
  • General competences are those not specific to language, but which are called upon for actions of all kinds, including language activities.
  • Communicative language competences are those which empower a person to act using specifically linguistic means.
  • Context refers to the constellation of events and situational factors (physical and others), both internal and external to a person, in which acts of communication are embedded.
  • Language activities involve the exercise of one’s communicative language competence in a specific domain in processing (receptively and/or productively) one or more texts in order to carry out a task.
  • Language processes refer to the chain of events, neurological and physiological, involved in the production and reception of speech and writing.
  • Text is any sequence or discourse (spoken and/or written) related to a specific domain and which in the course of carrying out a task becomes the occasion of a language activity, whether as a support or as a goal, as product or process.
  • Domain refers to the broad sectors of social life in which social agents operate. A higher order categorisation has been adopted here limiting these to major categories relevant to language learning/teaching and use: the educational, occupational, public and personal domains.
  • A strategy is any organised, purposeful and regulated line of action chosen by an individual to carry out a task which he or she sets for himself or herself or with which he or she is confronted.
  • A task is defined as any purposeful action considered by an individual as necessary in order to achieve a given result in the context of a problem to be solved, an obligation to fulfil or an objective to be achieved. This definition would cover a wide range of actions such as moving a wardrobe, writing a book, obtaining certain conditions in the negotiation of a contract, playing a game of cards, ordering a meal in a restaurant, translating a foreign language text or preparing a class newspaper through group work.

9.             A critique of CEFR

The definition of language used here is essentially a cultural one, or at least a functional/pragmatic one. A circular argument is employed to explain language as ‘language use’ which develops certain competencies in order to become a competent user of language – especially in the domains of ‘educational, occupational, public and personal’ communication. Indeed we are told that ‘communication competence’ in its narrow definition relates only to ‘linguistic means’. We are then told that ‘linguistic means’ involve ‘language processes’ which in turn are ‘neurological and physiological’ events. This is interesting. If language ultimately arises from neurological – physiological – structures, as any good bio-linguist will also claim, how can we then claim that ‘language use’ comprises a set of ‘language use’ competencies?

9.1.             A cultural definition of language according to CEFR?

If we only stick to the Saussurean dichotomy of langue (= competence) and parole (= performance, or if you like, ‘language use’, we can disambiguate the dilemma. All native speakers have acquired full language competence by the age of five or so. Throughout life they will use this language competence to perform many varied functions, including the learning of reading and writing, and the skill to get elected to the European Parliament where they can chair committees on language learning.

To make a terrible sporting analogy: if you learn the rules of cricket, bless you, by observation or formal instruction, you will be competent to play cricket and if you practice long enough and have some amazing motor skills to aid you in your quest, you will no doubt become a performer of the highest calibre (just make sure no ‘jerking’ is detected in your fast bowling).

In other words, first you need some level of competence; then you can perform. Competency as such will have almost no bearing on the higher levels of performance you can reach. Nobody will deny that there are some feedback loops to enhance competency, say in the extra acquisition of sophisticated vocabulary that sets you apart from the ordinary punter. What is clear though – to repeat – is that the five-year old has all the grammatical competence needed to learn to function in any domain of human endeavour. As we also know, this ‘learning to function’ is mainly achieved through formal education as a largely socio-economic cum cultural enterprise. In above CEFR language definition we have a fine example of the behaviourist underpinnings, namely ‘the monitoring of these actions by the participants leads to the reinforcement or modification of their competences’. So we are back in the dark ages whereby language is behaviour, and behaviour is subject to manipulation by the ‘participants’. Chomsky famously called this a fascist design. Of course the intentions by the EU and CEFR are noble enough: to bring unity and harmony to Europe and to pay lip service to the proposition that the relative language diversity in Europe shall cease to be ‘a barrier to communication’.

One must remind these authors that different languages have never been a barrier to communication precisely because it quite possible to ‘learn’ another language if you deem it necessary or desirable (cf. Kristeva, J. 1980 Desire in Language : A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art) to communicate with people who speak a language different from your own. One of the great disappointments in wanting to ‘communicate’ in such a way is to find out that the language use in that ‘other’ language is as varied as in your own – the whole gambit from utter fascist stupidity to the finest lyricism. It is ever so uplifting to listen to two lyricists who know each others languages. On the other hand Charlie Chaplin in The Great Dictator demonstrated that the language ‘performance’ of fascism doesn’t need much translation.

It is even more revealing what another ‘raison d’etre’ might be for learning another language: ‘to deal with the business of everyday life in another country, and to help foreigners staying in their own country to do so.’ The latter smacks of the linguistic imperialism so well elaborated by the likes of Phillipson (1992) and Skutnabb-Kangas (1995), i.e. not to inconvenience English, German and French and what have you well-heeled tourists who cannot be bothered to ‘communicate’ with the exotic locals other than to order them around in the dominant lingo. The poor locals soon find out that this has nothing to do with language competence but has everything to do with language performance common to rich tourists.

The former reason to ‘deal with the business of everyday life in another country’ is not far removed from the latter. Business culture always harbours the suspicion that the locals – speaking another language – will hoodwink you into deals only favourable for themselves. They say ‘yes’ to everything you say in English/French/German and then present you with a contract written in the local language, one which actually says ’no’. If you learn ‘their’ language you will avoid these pitfalls and become a successful entrepreneur, taking China by storm – but wasn’t it funny that former Australian PM, Kevin Rudd, who is fully ‘competent’ in Mandarin, somehow failed to adjust his Mandarin performance to be of any advantage. In fact he did so poorly he was rolled by his own deputy.

9.2.             CEFR Beginner Level descriptor

If one looks at the CEFR level descriptors in detail, one cannot escape the observation that here too one is up against cultural – and of course functional and pragmatic – definitions of language (i.e. only as language use). The statements as to what a language learner CAN DO at various levels are in the first instance predicated on the lowest level (A1): everything from there on is an improvement on the former. So let us check the first CAN DO statement:

Can understand and use familiar everyday expressions and very basic phrases aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type. Can introduce him/herself and others and can ask and answer questions about personal details such as where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has. Can interact in a simple way provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help.

The first ‘sentence’ refers to understanding and using ‘familiar everyday expressions’. Such ‘expressions’ vary widely depending on the cultural and more likely socio-economic context of the speaker. If one miss-uses language corpora statistics and simply lists the 50 most commonly used phrases, we end up with a mishmash of expressions used by nobody in particular. The most linguistically sound item in this sentence is the notion of ‘very basic phrases’ which in English syntax can be defined fairly precisely. If we adopt MP as a framework we might say that the basis of every phrase is a verb which then selects for a nominal argument, adopting a syntactic procedure called MERGE. This is a statement of linguistic competence and a language learner at beginner level will transfer this scheme from L1 to L2. In fact at this level we are still close to UG and we operate on the common competence in selecting a verb which in turn selects a nominal argument (or arguments). This sets up the grammar of the verb as the starting point for most if not all derivations in all languages. Since the TENSE-MOOD-ASPECT scheme is a basic feature of verbs we are forever told by the common garden variety of ESOL textbooks that we must start with the PRESENT TENSE (or also called ‘present simple’) as the point of departure. Anyone who has read anything on child language acquisition (Damon & Lerner 2006) will know that transitive verbs (also called ‘telic’ in terms of functional use) are typically first acquired in the PAST TENSE form and that intransitive verbs are more often first acquired in the PRESENT PROGRESSIVE. There is a compelling logic that defines time (TENSE) as always looking into the PAST – forever extending its realm as we get older – and backing into the unknown FUTURE – forever shrinking in its realm as we get older. The PRESENT is a complicated concept and is extended in its realm in many ways. For English we must not confuse the use of the INFINITIVE (= TENSEless) for the PRESENT – the former often an early feature of verb usage in language acquisition. We can expand such criteria for language competency learning at beginner stages by invoking the seminal treatise on this matter, namely White, L. 2003. Second language acquisition and Universal Grammar.

Note that we have made no statement at this stage as to how the learner can ‘use’ this competence. Indeed, even at this level the potential for using a ‘basic phrase’ is pretty much infinite. Naturally it will depend on the learner to determine his/her semantic domain, or as the statement puts it ‘aimed at the satisfaction of needs of a concrete type’. One would be hard pressed to argue that such a domain is in any way restricted to a few expressions – noting only in passing the ‘satisfaction of needs’ in terms of developmental psychology, Freud notwithstanding.

The second sentence refers to yet another cultural concept, namely to ‘introduce him/herself and others’. It is obviously assumed that such speech acts are of a basic nature only requiring ‘basic phrases’. Nothing is further from the truth from a cross-cultural perspective: if for example I introduce myself formally in a Maori context on a marae, I will have to recite my genealogy including ancestral mountain, river and canoe. If in an English informal context I say something like “hi, I’m Wolfgang’ I am indeed applying my basic linguistic competence in terms of merging a greeting interjection (‘hi’) with an existential phrase where the existential verb ‘to be’ selects two nominal arguments (‘I’ and ‘Wolfgang’) and where one can argue endlessly about whether or not ‘I am’ merges with ‘Wolfgang’ or ‘Wolfgang’ merges with ‘I am’. Indeed some L1 input may initially favour different word orders, e.g. ‘Wolfgang I am’ or ‘am I Wolfgang’ – the latter would confuse the hell out of native speakers even though this is just the coincidental result of L1 to L2 word order transfer.

The other ‘personal details’ such as ‘where he/she lives, people he/she knows and things he/she has’ are equally loaded terms, loosely equivalent to the English saying of ‘it’s not what you know but who you know’. One can always increase one’s personal status by bragging about ‘what one has’ in terms of ‘Oh Lord, buy me a Mercedes Benz, all my friends drive Porsche’. The last sentence at least mixes competence with performance, whereby ‘can interact in a simple way’ is a performance statement and ‘provided the other person talks slowly and clearly and is prepared to help’ is a type of linguistic competency statement. The idea of ‘talking slowly and clearly’ is a well-known phonological/phonetic output phenomenon in Chomskyian terms, constrained by the mechanics of speech production. It is fairly obvious that careful pronunciation by the L2 native speaker aids the acquisition of L2 phonological/phonetic features by the L1 language learner. It is less obvious that ‘speaking slowly’ actually aids the listening comprehension of the language learner as no amount of ‘slow talk’ can overcome competency gaps. In this context it is also worth pointing out that the common use of so-called ‘baby language’ by L2 native speakers is not necessarily a negative strategy to help the language leaner. What the L2 native speaker does intuitively is to revert to basic MERGE structures (e.g. verb + nominal argument) that are reminiscent of native child language acquisition. A problem however arises if the L2 native speaker mimics the L2 learner and uses the inter-language structures – ‘in Auckland I live’ – thus contributing to false input (cf. Friederici et al., on research on babies reacting to false syntax) and which will confuse the LAD of the L2 learner.

In conclusion, the CERF criteria for the A1 beginner language learner are largely construed on cultural and social performance items and only in passing address competency items like ‘basic phrase’ and ‘talk slowly’. My suggestion is to turn this ratio up-side-down and give much greater emphasis to what a language learner at beginner level should be competent in. To that end we should list a number of basic syntax structures as well as lexical input – the latter may or may not be an idiosyncratic feature of the language learner in terms of his/her interests and desires.

To stipulate the syntax structures a beginner should have mastered is akin to the theory and praxis of L1 language acquisition with the proviso that a language learner of L2 whose L1 is fixed (i.e. fully acquired by the age of 5 or so) and who has further constrained his competency of L1 by learning to read and write in L1, is in the unenviable position of having to rely on L1 to get to L2. Whilst there are instances of total immersion language learning of L2 without having anybody around who uses his L1, there is nevertheless a necessary link to L1 in the brain functions of the language learner. As we know only too well, the formal learning of L2, especially at beginner level, relies heavily on the transfer of L1 to L2 via the translation (bilingual dictionary) method. Indeed traditional language learning has always involved L1 teachers who learned L2 sufficiently well to teach it. This makes sense in terms of the L1 teacher being able to explain L2 features in terms of L1. The post-modern TESOL industry has however abandoned such tradition in favour of ‘classroom immersion’ whereby the English teacher cannot speak any of the languages of the language learners. These English teachers are unable to assist the language learner in explaining the transfer problems of L1 to L2 thus prolonging the pain of the beginner who has to navigate these problems by himself (or in association with his classmates who are in the same situation). Even at the danger of endlessly repeating the well-known analogy, one cannot stress enough the importance of ‘learning the rules’ – in your own language – of the game you want to play (say, ‘chess’ to make it more of an intellectual sport) before you start to play. Of course your ultimate level of ‘performance’ will not depend on the ‘rules of the game’ but rather on your level of dedication and talent. The same is true for language performance (playing the game) and language competence (the rules of the game). A further useful analogy in this context is the notion of the finite set of ‘rules’ having the potential to generate an infinite range of performance outputs. According to Chomsky this is achieved in the language context by way of applying MERGE and MOVE over and over again (iteration) thus arriving at highly complex language structures that in turn have the creative potential we know so well in belle lettres and certain types of poetry and political and scientific writing (both exemplified by Chomsky).

9.3.             CEFR Advanced (C2) level descriptor

Indeed this is the sort of criterion for the advanced level of language learning, namely the competence to generate complex sentence structures, which when properly described for English at least, occupy large volumes of text. It is thus really a bit of a joke to read the first sentence of the top C2 level of the CERF descriptors:

Can understand with ease virtually everything heard or read. Can summarise information from different spoken and written sources, reconstructing arguments and accounts in a coherent presentation. Can express him/herself spontaneously, very fluently and precisely, differentiating finer shades of meaning even in the most complex situations.

How many people do you know who truly ‘understand with ease virtually everything heard or read’ even if we restrict this notion to the person being able to select ‘everything heard or read’? I’ve read Einstein’s paper on the Theory of Relativity in German and English but I still cannot claim to have understood it. On the other hand I’ve read excerpts of Hitler’s Mein Kampf and I understood every word of it but failed to comprehend how anybody could be that stupid to believe a word of it. The only vague recourse to linguistic features of language competency is the reference to ‘differentiating finer shades of meaning’ – a question of semantics and an underlying question of how syntax generates meaning (in some theories of bio-linguistics is  asserted that syntax also generates the lexicon, Fujita 2009). Disambiguation is a skill that operates on all levels – not only in the ‘most complex situations’ – and involves also non-linguistic discernment as in the application of the phrase ‘it isn’t what you said but how you said it’.

It seems pretty pointless to me that a ‘can do list’ – as the CERF descriptors – posits a set of criteria at beginner level and then advances up the level by prefixing the criteria with qualitative adverbials such as ‘familiar, frequently used, main points, wide range and everything’. What it all amounts to is that language learners can be graded from A1 to C2, from 0 to 9, from D to A, from 1 to 6, from 0 to 100%, from fail to pass and pass with merit.

10.             Levels of language competence (langue) in L2

To assess levels of competence and performance as a whole is of course fraught with so many variables that it becomes nigh impossible to design a fair, valid and reliable, test instrument. Perhaps we should at least adopt the sporting analogy for ice skating: first give a grade for the technical skills (competence) and then another grade for the ‘performance’. For language learning we really need valid and reliable assessment instruments that measure the level of language competence before we engage in the rather subjective judgements on performance. To keep the sporting analogy going: as we are mainly interested in the ‘winner’ of a sporting competition we naturally focus on the performance level rather than the competence, as indeed most if not all participants are highly competent at this level. For language learning we are less interested in discriminating between winners and losers in terms of their performance levels but would like to assess their competency levels. Those who consider language learning a competitive sport may well think otherwise.

When we assess knowledge in mathematics or the natural sciences we seem to have no compunction about testing for rules and formulae, and how they are applied for problem solving. Traditionally we did the same for assessing grammar: test the knowledge of rules and how they are applied to given language data. Only when ‘grammar’ became a dirty word in the new fashion of communicative language learning did we abandon all such assessments and focussed instead on assessing communicative performance levels, pretending that this was somehow an authentic approach to language learning while grammar was something that is acquired, if at all, by osmosis.

11.             Grammar as explanation

We all know that the pendulum has swung back, hence grammar enjoys a bit of a revival and when you check any of the ubiquitous ESOL textbooks you will see quite a large section devoted to traditional aspects of grammar. Unfortunately these textbooks reverted to an outdated version of grammar, almost to that of the prescriptive sort so hated by lovers of “free” speech! Grammar has moved on to be ‘descriptive’ and then to ‘explanatory’, especially so in the Chomskyian models of language studies. The main point of knowing the rules of syntax is to be able to explain to language learners how and why their sentence structures are grammatical or un-grammatical. The latter is particularly important so as to be able to explain to the learner as to how and why an un-grammatical sentence was derived by breaking a rule of syntax. Many an ESOL teacher I’ve heard simply says “you can’t say that … you have to say it this way”, thus following the total immersion theory of language learning whereby language is a behaviour that is simply imitated.

12.             TESL and the use of comparative grammars

What would be even better is to know the syntax of L1 and L2 so as to be able to explain to the language learner how inter-language sentence structures are generated and how such structures can be shifted along to the L2 target of syntax rules (Selinker 1972). While there are quite a lot of academic studies in this very field one cannot say that this has filtered down to ESOL teachers. One presumes that an important reason for this lack of development has to do with the current trend of TESOL being a private enterprise that employs ‘teachers’ for peanuts, whose only qualification is to be a ‘native’ speaker. Furthermore the practice -  to enrol speakers from many different linguistic backgrounds into one ESOL class – is highly counterproductive to comparative language learning, and literally forcing even a well meaning and well qualified ESOL teacher to conduct the class in the total immersion mode. Indeed many owners of private language schools promote the highly questionable policy that mixing up students from many linguistic and CULTURAL backgrounds is supposed to be highly beneficial for all concerned – well it is very beneficial for the owner in terms of being able to enrol all comers and collect the fees accordingly. As we noted before, such policies are particularly counterproductive at the lower levels of language learner competency (commonly known as beginner, elementary, pre-intermediate and intermediate levels – and providing the mainstay of language learners in many ESOL schools in New Zealand). 

12.1.             The learning of Mandarin anaphora rules by English and Korean speakers

Still, those who take language teaching to be based on the scientific method, may well point in the right direction and too a brighter future for language learners fed on false propaganda. Let us briefly examine one such development. In a recent study (Sperlich 2011) the learning is investigated of certain Mandarin anaphora rules by English and Korean speakers. The hypothesis is that Korean speakers will learn the mandarin rules faster than English speakers due to the fact that Mandarin anaphora rules are somewhat similar to Korean distant-binding rules while the English rules have a strong-local binding component. Generally an English anaphor will bind to the nearest left-based NP while Korean and Mandarin anaphors allow for more distant binding, and so much so in Mandarin that pragmatic considerations will come into play when for example disambiguating between two or more NPs that can bind to the anaphor. When testing the hypothesis, the main relationships are confirmed but an interesting outcome is the observation that English speakers at upper-intermediate to advanced levels of Mandarin tend to outperform the Korean speakers who are at lower levels. Whilst this seems logical in hindsight it serves to counter the commonly held argument that a speaker of L1 learning L2 will have great difficulties to ever master an L2 syntax rule that is quite different from L1.  The findings also debunk the language myth that speakers whose languages are related typologically (e.g. English and German) will find it much easier to learn each other’s languages than learning a language that is typologically unrelated (e.g. English and Mandarin). The point being that languages that are mutually unintelligible (e.g. English, German, Mandarin, Korean), are so because their syntax rules generate different structures (and as mentioned, perhaps even different lexica). These differences – often of a very subtle but structurally diverse nature – are unlikely to be quantitatively different across unrelated languages, i.e. to have fewer differences across related languages. The hypothesis stated here is that all languages are equally easy or difficult to learn. The differences between related and unrelated languages are of a typological nature only and should not be confused with actual differences that amount to mutual unintelligence. All languages have UG or some such basic blue-print as part of their LAD, hence surface structure details that amount to different languages may be difficult to overcome when learning a “foreign” language but – as Chomsky has pointed out – if and when an intelligent Martian visits earth, he will have no problem in deciphering the common code underlying all the different languages of the world and arrive at an immediate methodology to translate perfectly well between all of the languages. Indeed recent advances in computing power go a long way towards this goal even though we must allow for the ultimate Chomsky paradox which says that machine language computing will never catch up with instantaneous and creative MERGE and MOVE iterations that only the human brain is capable of – Martians of course excepted.

13.             Universals of culture

We can of course make the same analogy for cultural differences, especially since different cultures are much less mutually unintelligible than different languages are. Our Martian friend will find it particularly easy to recognize the human species as one, perceiving different cultures – especially in these modern times of the global village – as a side show that amuses tourists but fools no one into believing that we are unable to cross cultures and remain locked in our own cultures. As one brought up in Bavaria, I can attest to the fact that Bavarian culture these days is an artefact played out for tourist promotions and occasionally is used for racist and other xenophobic attacks on unsuspecting folk who more often than not fled their own oppressive cultural regimes. Culture is only beautiful when it asserts the universal values of social justice, the pursuit of happiness and dressing up in fanciful costumes designed to tickle the visual senses. Going to the Bavarian Oktoberfest and drink lots of beer as a cultural experience and then urinate out of the beer tent is akin to what President Lyndon B. Johnson is reputed to have said about the human condition in terms of its American cultural aspirations: “it is much better to piss out of the tent than into it from the outside”.

An alternative reading of culture – and a more positive one – would be to make the analogy to language, i.e. the proposition that different cultures are the mere surface phenomena of a universal culture. If so we could explore more credible associations between language and culture. For example we could focus on cultural differences based on geographical factors: many small island cultures have evolved a deictic system that defines some cardinal directions in terms ‘to the ocean from anywhere on the island’ and ‘to the island from the ocean’). We may well call this a cross-over from language to environment (including culture) and back to language. Given the potential of language to create an infinite store of expressions, there are clearly filters at work that reduce such infinity to a workable every-day-language store (we all know the story of the drunks in the pub who get along with a store of about ten linguistic expressions supplemented by various non-verbal grunts). These filters operate no doubt on a physical/environmental level (e.g. the many terms for ‘snow’ in Eskimo societies) but may well include screens that operate on societal organisation (e.g. language terminology and taboos on kinship – as famously explored by Levi-Strauss 1949). What many schools of anthropology unfortunately stressed is the absolute uniqueness of such cultural/societal constructs rather than conducting further research into finding the common denominator. For example, however complex or simple a system of kinship terminology may be, it is quite easy to set up a nomenclature that fits all and sundry (just as we have the IPA for all languages of the world). We can even incorporate cultural relativism à la Foucault (however much Chomsky may be opposed to this idea), Derrida (1978) and Kristeva (1980), inasmuch as meaning is constantly filtered via environmental/societal contexts, giving rise to ‘madness’ as much as to the ‘archaeology of knowledge’ re-constructed by Foucault (1969).

The idea that different cultures give rise to different learning styles has also been shown to be false, mainly because of the terminological confusion between ‘learning style’ and ‘teaching methodology’. In the first instance it can be claimed that learning styles have a string innate component hence will have a similar distribution across all populations and cultures. Levinsohn (2007) for example investigated the learning styles between Chinese and European trade students at a NZ Polytechnic (Unitec) and found no significant differences. As far as ‘teaching methodologies’ are concerned we have of course a wide range of differences – predicated more on political differences than on cultural ones, I would assume. Authoritarian teaching methods can be found in all countries, and the more the country is run on authoritarian principles, the more likely will authoritarian teaching methods predominate. The Western propaganda model of communist China having indoctrinated and brainwashed billions of students over the past decades holds no longer sway, what with Chinese students nowadays often beating their European students at their own game – maybe the remnants of a communist education methodology equipping them exactly for that purpose.

14.             Language as paradox

As indicated above, a personal favourite is Julia Kristeva’s (1980) Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art in which she reduces language to psychological instincts and foreshadows works by Pinker (The Language Instinct, 1994) and Dutton (The Art Instinct, 2009). At this level language, psychology, sociology, anthropology and politics become intertwined and yet, at the meta-level all this is mediated by the mysterious ability that is our universal language competence (or so much more explicit as langue in the French language as used by de Saussure). I say “mysterious” not due to some spiritual relativism about langue but due to the minimal knowledge we have about langue, especially in the sense of the Chomsky analogy by which we conduct research into langue, i.e. we are still at the level of the ‘drunk who looks for his car keys under the lamp post because that’s where the light is’. One can go as far as stating a paradox (not one Chomsky would agree to as a scientist): since we can explain langue only by the means of langue, we are faced by the snake biting its tail.

Just as physicists are chasing the Higgs boson as some sort of ‘God particle’ in the mind of the popular media, so we can attribute to linguists the ultimate aim of explaining language by way of some quintessential MERGE and MOVE particles anchored deep in our DNA. Indeed bio-linguists (Benítez-Burraco & Longa 2010) argue about whether or not MP (Minimalist Program, Chomsky 1995) is in tune with Evo-Devo or whether or not the previous parameter-fixing model (GB = Government and Binding, Chomsky 1981) is a better binary candidate in terms of switching - on and off - of genes. For religious minded fundamentalists – especially the infamous creationists – one can of course invoke the entirely non-scientific obstacle to this whole enterprise: to be able to explain langue is tantamount to the forbidden knowledge from the apple tree. Perhaps we will yet discover that one of the punishments dished out for the vain attempt was ‘thou shall not know your language (a theme reintroduced via the Tower of Babel)’ – despite one of my favourite linguistic quotes coming from the Bible, namely that ‘in the beginning was the word’ – and may I amend this in my great linguistic wisdom to ‘in the beginning was the verb’ (see below).

15.             A 12 week program for TESL

Week 1:            the VERB as the key to canonical sentences
Week 2:            intransitive vs. transitive verbs (valency)
Week 3:            how verbs express TIME (Tense, Mood, Aspect) – model the Polynesian concept of time as being closest to UG
Week 4:            how verbs express VOICE (active, passive)
Week 5:            how content verbs interact with auxiliary and modal verbs
Week 6:             how the Verb Phrase is expanded by adverbials
Week 7:             how verbs select nominal arguments
Week 8:             the noun phrase (NP)
Week 9:             how to derive a simple sentence
Week 10:            the feedback loop of syntax and vocabulary (homework: learn the vocabulary list for your CEFR level off by heart)
Week 11:            listen to text that follows (more or less) above constraints
Week 12:            produce text as much as you can, as much as you know (let your highly trained ESOL bio-linguistics teacher assess your level of competence attained)


Note: on-line references provided in the text are not repeated here

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