Experimental Approaches Applied to Two Areas of Second Language Learning Research: Age and Listening-based Teaching Methods
(Chapter 2 of V.J. Cook (ed), Experimental Approaches 1986, Pergamon)
aim of the present chapter is to give the reader a feel for research carried out
within an experimental
approach to second language learning. Rather than imposing an arbitrary overall
classification on the whole field, it covers two areas in some depth—age and
listening-based teaching methods—to see the range of techniques that have
and to examine their advantages and disadvantages.
in L2 Learning
commonly believe that success in L2 learning depends on the age of the learner. Chomsky,for instance, commented in his celebrated review of 'Verbal Behavior' "It
is a common observation that a young child of immigrant parents may learn a second
language in the streets, from other children, with amazing rapidity . . . while
the subtleties that become second nature to the child may elude his parents
despite high motivation and continued practice" (Chomsky, 1959, p. 49).
Many others have claimed
explicitly or implicitly that adults learn a second language less efficiently
than young children. The Critical Period Hypothesis advanced by Lenneberg
suggested that the ability to learn language naturally atrophied after the early
teens (Lenneberg, 1967). The Monitor Model, too, sees a change as learners
become able to monitor their output at about the same time, which is not always
to the older learner's benefit (Krashen, 1981). One linguist has allegedly
issued a challenge to present ten thousand dollars to anyone who can produce a
foreign learner who started learning the language after their early teens and
cannot be distinguished from a native speaker. Anecdotes about successful and
unsuccessful learning of children and adults abound; on the one hand there is
the stereotype of Hyman Kaplan, still speaking a unique language of his own
after many years; on the other, any public discussion of this invariably yields
at least one person present who knows a possible claimant for the ten thousand
dollars. Such anecdotes are bound to be coloured by the comparative ability of
the immigrant who has not lost his or her foreign accent; the Maurice Chevaliers
or the Henry Kissingers stand out but the Robert Maxwells and Laurence Harveys
merge with the crowd.
age question has also become inextricably interwoven with language teaching.
There is a common belief that children need different language teaching methods
from adults. However, many of the techniques used with adults in the
communicative language teaching method popular in recent years, such as
communication games, are derived from activities used in primary schools and
implicitly deny the difference. The optimum age for starting a second language
has also been a perennial issue in education and figured highly for example in
the British controversies of the 1960s over whether French should be taught in
the primary school.
consensus of opinion among both linguists and the general public seems to be
that adults are worse than children at second language learning. Why should this
be? Normally we think of adults as being more mature, more capable than
children; universities prefer students of 18 rather than 8. There is something
anomalous about an area of human activity where it is a handicap to be an adult.
Several explanations have been advanced for this oddity. It may be that the
brain loses "plasticity" at some point of development (Penfield and
Roberts, 1959), although the evidence for this seems lacking (Whittaker, 1981).
It might be that adult cognitive processing inhibits language learning (Rosansky,
1975). Or the specialization of the brain's two hemispheres may hinder language
learning, though opinions as to when this happens are various (Lenneberg, 1967;
Krashen, 1973). It might be differences in the language or social situation that
adults encounter. It may be that emotional changes associated with adolescence
hamper language learning. Or it may be that the establishment of a language
"ego" in the first language causes the mind to be defensive when
meeting new languages (Guiora, et
Perhaps one of these explanations is correct. Perhaps, however, it would be as
well to check that the original observation of children's superiority at L2
learning is in fact correct: are children indeed better than adults at learning
a second language?
achieve this, ideally, we need to compare the success of two groups of second
language learners who differ in no other way except that one group are children,
the other adults, through a manipulative method with a controlled situation, or
a difference method where the differences between two groups are assessed.
Bearing in mind the arguments of the last chapter, this means narrowing the
question down to a form that can be answered. What aspects of language should be
dealt with? Is it learning over a period of years that is crucial or learning
over a period of hours or weeks? Should they be learners in their home countries
or learners in the country where the language is spoken? Should the language be
picked up naturally or learnt in a classroom? Perhaps all children in all
circumstances do better at L2 learning than adults. To show this, however, would
mean testing a variety of learners and circumstances. The great danger is to
compare adults with children who differ in some other way than age. In
particular, it is important to ensure they are in the same type of situation;
there may be many differences in situation that could favour the child. As Smith
and Braine comment about the "alleged facility of children", "All
that these anecdotes demonstrate is that an adult who lives in a sub-culture
where his native language is known need not be motivated to learn, and a child
who is sent to the local school or nursery in a foreign country is subject to
what are surely very effective conditions for learning: massive exposure to the
language together with overwhelming pressure to learn" (Smith and Braine,
n.d., p. 21). A proper answer to the question involves specifying as closely as
possible all the factors that could conceivably make a difference to the
performance of the two groups.
us now see how this subject has been tackled in L2 learning by examining some of
the relevant research. At the end of this section (p. 30) there is a list of
twenty-two important papers dealing with age in L2 learning; the first twelve
are collected in a single book, Age
Differences in Second Language Learning (Krashen,
Scarcella, and Long, 1982). These will be referred to by number and, when
appropriate, by the authors' names.
particular features of
or phonology of
different L2s might influence the age at which they are best learnt. It might
be, say, that Chinese is difficult for English children but not for adults. Out
of the twenty-two articles, nine are concerned with the learning of English
(1-5, 10, 12, 22), three with German (6, 13, 15), three French (19-21), two
Dutch (8, 9), two Hebrew (2, 16), one Swedish (11), one Russian (7), one
Esperanto (18), and one nonsense syllables (14). Or it might be that features of
learners' L1s make learning particular L2s difficult or easy at certain ages.
Ten papers concern native speakers of English (2,6-8,13,15,18-21), five speakers
languages (5, 10, 11, 16, 17), three Italian speakers (2, 3, 1), one Swedish
(12), one Finnish (12), and one Japanese (22). About three-quarters are
therefore concerned with the learning of
Indo-European language as the second language, three-quarters with learning of
languages by speakers of
languages, not counting five studies where native languages were mixed or not
given. The papers concentrate on one language, English, and one group of
Indo-European. Whatever they show may not be true for languages other than
English or language families other than Indo-European.
further problem is the definition of age. The crucial comparison is between the
language proficiency of
groups who have learnt the second language for the same period of
has to be taken into account not only as the age at which learning started, but
also as the duration of learning. Two basic possibilities present themselves.
One is to take two groups of different ages and to get them to learn the second
language for the same amount of time, a manipulative method; Asher and Price (7)
for example taught Russian to four groups aged 8, 10, 14, and adult; Politzer
and Weiss (21) taught French to children from first to ninth grades; Locke (13)
taught German sounds to kindergarten and first grade children. While this
approach deals admirably with short-term learning, it is hard to utilize for the
period of 10 years or more that may be necessary to approach near-native
performance in a second language. The second possibility is to take a large
group of learners and to sort them out according to the duration of second
language learning and to the age of starting, a difference method; a group of
mixed ages are subdivided into those who started learning French below 11 and
above 11, which can in turn be sub-divided into those who have learnt it for
more than 5 years or less than 5 years. Patkowski (5) tested immigrants to the
USA and looked at age of arrival and years in the USA as factors in their
proficiency; Smith and Braine (16) took census returns in Israel (Bachi, 1956)
and compared the amount of use of Hebrew for different ages of arrival. The
advantage of this approach is that it can settle issues about long-term
learning; it substantially relies, however, on the learner's recollections of
duration; nor is the type of
and the situation controlled as in the first solution.
the age of starting
can be used in two ways; on the one hand it may be the actual moment when the
learner started learning the language; on the other it may be the moment when an
immigrant arrived in the target country. Gomes da Costa et
for instance, looked at the ages at which British university undergraduates had
started to learn German. But many studies take age of
as the starting point, as we saw in Patkowski (5) and Smith and Braine (16).
Using immigrants could confuse several possibilities; the immigrant may have
learnt some of the language before arrival; he may have been adopted into an
immigrant community in the host community and not started using the target
language for some time.
question of immigrants raises the issue of other learner variables than age
itself. Immigrants are only one type of language learner; they meet a particular
situation in a particular country. Conceivably, immigrants have different
personalities from non-immigrants; they are selected in various ways from the
population of their mother country by political, racial or religious reasons.
Their encounter with the host country reflects the status of immigrants with
their background at that particular time. A Cuban immigrant to the USA in the
1950s may be a very different person and encounter different people and
situations from a Cuban immigrant in the 1970s. Research into age differences
among immigrants has to be qualified in terms of the possible limitations
reflected in the use of immigrant learners. Eight of the articles concern
immigrants to the USA (1-5, 10, 17, 22), two concern immigrants to Israel (2,
16), three concern immigrants to Sweden, Switzerland, and Holland (9, 11, 20).
other major type of L2 learner is the non-immigrant, that is to say, somebody
learning the foreign language in a country where it is not spoken, perhaps the
majority of L2 learners in the world today. Some of the studies concern learners
of this type. Snow and Hoefnagel-Hoehle (8) for example look at the imitation of
Dutch sounds by English speakers in England whereas Gomes da Costa et
look at English people learning German in England; five studies are about the
learning of European languages in the United States (6, 7, 13, 19, 21), one is
about children learning English in Sweden (12).
these varieties of learner is the question of education. Many of the articles
choose learners that are highly educated—"they were taken from the upper
educational groups" (3), "all subjects . . . had had some college
education"(4), and "Most subjects either held professional positions
or were continuing their education" (5). The sample is biased towards
literate middle-class learners rather than being typical of all learners or even
of all immigrants. But education is also involved as a situational variable:
have the learners been taught the language in a formal situation or have they
picked it up informally? Learners taught in a structured, organized way could
show many differences from informal learners. Some of the articles are indeed
concerned with actual teaching methods, for instance Total Physical Response
(7). Most of the subjects have encountered formal teaching in one way or
another; Oyama (3, 4) deliberately selected learners who had had the maximal
opportunities to learn the language. Other accounts either report learners
taught by mixed teaching methods (15), or use specific teaching methods as part
of the experimental technique (13). In most it is probably impossible to sort
out the roles played by formal and informal situations; Ekstrand (12), for
example, looked at "all immigrant pupils in school ages who were registered
as needing special tuition in Swedish and consequently were given such
tuition"; that is to say, the children were not only in a
"natural" immigrant situation but were also receiving specific
sex may also be a factor. Oyama (3) observes that women immigrants have
restricted language experiences in the host country, compared with men. A
popular belief is that girls are better at language learning than boys,
confirmed by Asher and Garcia (1) but not by Gomes da Costa et
or by Snow and Hoefnagel-Hoehle (8).
most of the articles roughly equal weighting is given to the sexes, though some
are exclusively about males (3, 4, 13).
the aspects of language that are compared. No overall linguistic framework can
be applied to the experiments. Most deal with various aspects of pronunciation:
three evaluate the foreignness of "accent" (2, 3, 11); seven look at
diverse aspects of phonological production (1, 6, 8,9,12,13, 21); three look at
perception of sounds (4, 9, 21); one looks at the learning of phonological
patterns (14). Some deal with syntax: the production of grammatical morphemes
(7, 20) and syntax (5, 9, 10); and the comprehension of syntax (7). Amount of
language use (16), and telling and understanding of stories (9, 11) are also
tested. The aspects are therefore heterogeneous and have notable omissions.
There is little connection with discourse or pragmatics, with stress or
intonation; only two experiments concern vocabulary (17, 18) and one of those is
Esperanto (18). While the learning of phonology may be peculiarly susceptible to
age differences, the case is not proved if it is not contrasted with other
of the actual techniques used in the experiments inevitably concern phonology.
Many consider it in terms of "accent"; commonly this is ascertained by
asking the learners to produce specimens of speech and then by evaluating
foreignness of accent according to the judgement of native speakers (1), or
graduate linguistics students (3); sometimes the learners are simply asked to
report on their own accents (2). Degree of accent is essentially a lay person's
rather than a linguist's measure in that it does not specify whether the
difference between accents is caused by, say, phonemes, stress, intonation or
even, in those studies which ask the learner to speak spontaneously, by grammar
or discourse (3). Nor is accent necessarily a measure of comprehensibility to
native speakers. Reporting one's own accent may also be unreliable in that
perhaps adults are less confident about their accents, regardless of how good
they are. A more linguistically acceptable way of looking at phonology is to
test particular phonemes, ranging from a complete phonetic transcript (11), to a
combination of discrimination and production tasks (21), to thirty-three
phonemes of German (6), down to three sounds of German (13).
of syntax and vocabulary is tested by repetition (1, 9), and by various
adaptations of the "wug" test which involves seeing how people attach
grammatical morphemes to words (9, 10). Comprehension is tested by responses to
commands (7) and choice of pictures (11). Some research uses complex test
batteries from outside the experiment itself—Foreign Service Institute levels
(5, 15) or other standardized batteries (17, 19). Two use social measures: the
number of friends who speak the native language (2); or the amount of perceived
language use(16). The remainder use a variety of measures; grammaticality (9)
and the learning of strange phonological sequences (14), translation (9, 12),
self- and teacher-rating of fluency(22), among others. Overall, though, it can
be said that few use the accepted techniques of language testing developed by
language teachers in the past few years: the multiple choice tests of the 1970s;
the perennial cloze test; or the more recent communicative type tests. Little of
the testing involves aspects of language that most language teaching
methodologists currently consider important; with one or two exceptions, such as
Patkowski (5), they concern linguistic competence dominated by syntax and
phonemes rather than communicative or pragmatic competence relating language to
its use or situation—grammatical accuracy rather than communicative fluency.
surprisingly the results of these investigations are by no means in accord with
each other. Let us recognize three main groups: those which compare older with
younger children, those which compare children with adults, and those which look
at the eventual proficiency of adult immigrants. Three apparently paradoxical
statements can be made.
Older Children are Better than Younger Children at Learning a Second
phonology, this conclusion is advanced by Locke for first grade children versus
kindergarten children (13); by Asher and Price (7) for children of 8, 11 and 14;
by Snow and Hoefnagel-Hoehle (8-9) for children aged 5-15; by Ekstrand for
children aged 8-17 (11) and 8-15-year-olds (12); by Ervin-Tripp (20) for
4-9-year-olds; and by Politzer and Weiss (21) for Grades 1-9. For other aspects
of language the conclusion is true for 8-14-year-olds for responses to commands
(7), for 6-10 versus 11-15 for "wug" tests (10), for 8-11-year-olds
for various syntactic tests (11). The only contrary result is Fathmann's finding
that 6-10-year-olds were rated more highly on pronunciation than 11-15-year-olds
(10), and perhaps Walberg et
evidence that amount of experience is more important than age (22). To sum up,
older children were better than younger children in all tests but one in which
they were directly compared. This applies even to phonology, contrary to the
notion of young children as excellent mimics. Most, though not all, of these are
short term studies where the language was taught for brief periods to different
groups e.g. Asher and Garcia (1) or Locke (13). All but four (7, 8, 13, 21)
concern the learning of an L2 in the country where it is spoken.
Adults are Better than Children at Learning a Second Language
Snow and Hoefnagel-Hoehle found that "Older subjects were considerably
better than younger subjects at pronunciation and only after a period of about a
year did the younger subjects begin to excel" (8); in their second paper
the results were less compatible with the theory that adulthood confers an
advantage, in that the 12-15s outshone the adults (though they were also better
than the younger age groups) (9). Asher and Price (7), however, found consistent
advantages for adults over all other age groups; Olson and Samuels (6) claimed
"Our evidence suggests that adults are superior to children in foreign
language pronunciation", supported by Thorndike (18), who is convinced
20-40-year-olds are better than 8, 10 or 12-year-olds, Cheydleur, who found
adults better than high school students (19), and Smith and Braine(16), who
found an optimum age around 30. Most of the supporting evidence for this
statement comes from shorter-term second language learning, usually in the
learner's own country.
Immigrants Who Start Learning a Second Language Younger End up Better
Speakers than Those who Start Older
this is supported by many of the studies — Patkowski's battery of tests (5),
Oyama's phonological work (3, 4), work with accents (1, 2, 4), comprehension
(4), and mixed tests (17). Mostly, these utilize the technique of
retrospectively looking at adults, though Ramsay et
the amount of accent depends upon age at arrival for child immigrants (17). Snow
and Hoefnagel-Hoehle (9) however found contradictory if complex results with
English immigrants to Holland, and Smith and Braine found reported language use
increased with age of arrival; "any change would be better located at pre-
and post-30 than pre- and post-13" (16, p. 26).
first sight, then, those papers seem to have established that, on the one hand,
the older you are when you start learning a second language, the better; on the
other, the older you are, the worse. How can this contradiction be resolved? A
direct paradox has been avoided in these three statements by making the first
two refer to learners of any type, the third to immigrants. The crucial
difference may be whether the learner is in his own country or is starting life
in a new country; some feature of immigration, whether in the learner or in the
situation, causes the apparent inferiority of adults. But this is only one
interpretation of the results and rests on the coincidental factor that much of
the evidence for statements 1 and 2 comes from non-immigrant settings, much of
that for 3 from immigrants. Krashen, Scarcella, and Long (1982) sum up the
articles collected in their book (1-12) in three statements that are
superficially similar to the present three, with one crucial difference. Their
first claim is that adults are faster than children in the early stages of
learning; their second is that older children are faster than younger ones;
their third is that those who begin during childhood end up superior to those
who start as adults. The crucial difference is that they pick out of the
evidence for each statement one feature which they consider to be crucial—the
question of short-term versus long-term learning. Children are better in the
long term, adults in the short. Most of the evidence for the first two
statements is concerned with learning over months rather than years, though with
some exceptions; most of the evidence for the third is based on the experiences
of those who have learnt a language for many years. They argue that while adults
start off better, they tail off rapidly and are soon passed, as for instance the
results of Snow and Hoefnagel-Hoehle's research (8-9) suggest, with the adults'
advantage diminishing as the year went on.
sum up, the area of age has been tackled in a number of painstaking articles.
Many of them have an orientation towards teaching methodology, though some are
concerned with the psychological and linguistic implications of age. The methods
used have varied between manipulative, observational and difference. Thorough as
this research has been, it is still far from conclusive.
original question—are adults better than children at learning a second
language?—has produced contradictory answers. The contradictions are argued
here to lie somewhere in the design of the research—perhaps the factor of
immigration, perhaps short versus long-term learning, perhaps the narrow aspects
of language that have been tested, perhaps some other factor that is not
immediately apparent. How can we settle which is right? One approach would be to
re-analyse the existing studies in painstaking detail to see if the important
factor can be isolated. The only real way, however, is to undertake new research
that specifically controls for the factor we suspect is responsible, whether
this may be immigration, length of learning, or whatever.
the bulk of the research has shown that the facile assumption that children are
better than adults at second language learning is far from true. Indeed, most of
the research that directly compares them in controlled conditions found that the
reverse was true. Only in retrospective research with immigrants, using date of
arrival and uncontrolled learning situations, does adult inferiority come to
light. While the issue is far from settled, it seems that the advantages of
children in most forms of second language learning over the short term are
nothing but a myth.
List of Selected Articles on Age in Second Language Learning
J. and Garcia, G. (1969) The optimal age to learn a foreign language, Modern
Language Journal, 38, 334-341.
H., Krashen, S. and Ladefoged, P. (1975) Maturational constraints in the
acquisition of second languages, Language
Sciences, 38, 20-22.
S. (1976) A sensitive period for the acquisition of a non-native phonological
of Psycholinguistic Research, 5, 261-285.
S. (1978) The sensitive period and comprehension of speech, Working
Papers on Bilingualism, 1978,
M. (1980) The sensitive period for the acquisition of syntax in a second
Learning, 30, 449^72.
L. and Samuels, S. J. (1973) The relationship between age and accuracy of
foreign language pronunciation, Journal
of Educational Research, 66, 263-267.
J. and Price, B. (1967) The learning strategy of total physical response: some
age differences. Child
Development, 38, 1219-1227.
C. and Hoefnagel-Hoehle, M. (1978) The critical period for language acquisition:
evidence from second language learning, Child
Development, 49, 1114-1128.
C. and Hoefnagel-Hoehle, M. (1977) Age differences in the pronunciation of
foreign sounds, Language
and Speech, 20, 357-365.
A. (1975) The relationship between age and second language productive ability, Language
Learning, 25, 245-253.
L. (1976) Age and length of residence as variables related to the adjustment of
migrant children, with special reference to second language learning, in G.
Nickel (ed.) Proceedings
of the Fourth International Congress of Applied Linguistics, Stuttgart,
L. (1978) English with a book revisited: the effect of age on second language
acquisition in formal setting, Didakometry,
J. L. (1969) Experimentally elicited articulatory behaviour, Language
and Speech, 72/3,
J. and Salin, E. (1971) Children's learning of unfamiliar phonological
and Motor Skills, 33, 559-562.
da Costa, B., Smith, T. M. F. and Whiteley, D. (1975) German
Language Attainment, Julius
K. H. and Braine, M. D. S., Miniature languages and the problem of language
acquisition, mimeo, no date.
C. A. and Wright, E. N. (1974) Age and second language learning, J.
Soc. Psych., 94,111-121.
E. L. (1928) Adult
F. D. (1932) An experiment in adult learning of French at the Madison Wisconsin
Vocational School, J.
Ed. Res., 26, 259-275.
S. E. (1972) Is second language learning like the first? TESOL
Quarterly, 8, 111-129.
R. L. and Weiss, L. (1969) Developmental aspects of auditory discrimination,
echo response and recall, Modern
Language Journal, 53, 75-85.
H. J., Hase, K. and Rasher, S. P. (1978) English acquisition as a diminishing
function of experience rather than age, TESOL
Teaching Methods and Second Language Learning
us now take a second area of second language learning research to which an
experimental approach can be applied. The past few years have seen a dramatic
change in attitudes among language teaching theorists towards the skill of
listening. Numerous reports have attested to the success of language teaching
methods that emphasize listening rather than speaking as the main priority in
the early stages of language learning. Theoretical support comes from the ideas
of Krashen and others that the most important element in language learning is
meaningful input—listening to language that carries an actual message to the
learner; "all other factors thought to encourage or cause second language
acquisition only work when they provide comprehensible input" (Krashen,
1981, p. 57). Let us call the overall approach to language teaching that
emphasizes listening as the primary skill "Listening First".
essential common creed of Listening First is that the learner should listen to
the language without being forced to speak; in the words of Gary and Gary
(1981a, p. 332) "foreign language instruction should give primary emphasis
to the comprehension skills of listening and reading and should relegate the
productive skill of speaking to a later and less conspicuous role in the typical
classroom ..." In some ways this
is a reaction against the audiolingual emphasis on oral production through
dialogue repetition, drills, and so on. But it is also in opposition to other
more recent methods, as diverse as communicative language teaching and Community
Language Learning (CLL), that insist that a major component in language teaching
should be to get the student to create new utterances that express his own ideas
and feelings rather than simply reacting to those of others. In communicative
language teaching, usually, the students aim at exchanging information with
other people in a two-way process rather than being only at the receiving end;
in CLL at taking part in the social setting of the learning group. It should
perhaps be pointed out that Listening First is a loose label for several methods
that stress the importance of listening but otherwise differ quite widely in
their assumptions. There seems a world of difference, for example, between those
that ban the written word, such as Total Physical Response (Asher, 1981), and
those that actively rely on it, such as Gary and Gary (1981a); between those
that stress meaningful situations, such as Gary and Gary (1981a), and those that
teach words or sentences with no more context than an illustrative picture, such
as Reeds, Winitz and Garcia (1977).
overall advantages of Listening First have been neatly summarized by Gary and
Gary (1981b) as:
It is better to concentrate on one skill at a time; learning, listening and
speaking simultaneously places too many demands on the learner.
A major handicap for some learners is that speaking in public in the second
language embarrasses or frightens them; they should only have to speak when they
feel they are ready for it.
Listening is inherently communicative in that the listener tries to work out a
message from what he hears; speaking can be parrot-like repetitions or
manipulations of sounds.
compatability. Listening lends itself to the use of tape-recorders, films, and
even computer-controlled language labs; speaking does not fit in so easily with
Students can, in many circumstances, use listening outside the classroom because
of the availability of films, television programmes, etc., while they are
unlikely to be able to speak in the foreign language outside the classroom
reason why Listening First is discussed here is not, however, found in such
teaching advantages, real as they may be. Rather, Listening First is almost
unique among teaching methods in seeing itself within an experimental approach;
indeed those who advocate it often come from a background of psychology. Its
claims, unlike those of most methods, are based on better evidence than the
teacher's experience and hunch. Let us then look at the evidence that has been
cited in favour of Listening First as an example of how a teaching method may be
treated within an experimental approach. Two major types of evidence are usually
advanced; controlled studies of language teaching; and research into first
Controlled Studies of Listening First in the Classroom
usual research paradigm is to have an experimental group who are taught by the
teaching method in question and a control group who are taught by a more
conventional method, a classic manipulative method with controlled data. For
example, Postovsky (1974) divided intakes of military personnel studying Russian
into two equivalent groups who had exactly the same hours of instruction, length
of study, teachers, and so on, except that for the first 4 weeks of their
12-week course the Experimental group made written rather than spoken responses.
Tested in the same way at the end of 6 weeks, the experimental group were ahead
of the Control on speaking, reading, and writing skills; after 12 weeks they
were still ahead on listening comprehension. A similar design is found in
Kunihara and Asher (1965) which compared groups taught by a control and a
Listening First Method, namely Total Physical Response, in which the students
respond physically to commands; results for retention of "behavioural
units" immediately after training and 6 weeks later showed the superiority
of the experimental group. An alternative to a two-group design is to test a
single group. Winitz and Reeds (1973) carried out a pilot study with two
learners to establish the feasibility of their particular Listening First
method, which consisted of the presentation of pictures and oral words at the
same time, before extending it to two groups learning German for 2 and 3 weeks
respectively (Reeds, Winitz and Garcia, 1977); they then measured the extent to
which the students could cope with a translation test of written
which they had never encountered before; this established that there was a
carry-over of about 80 per cent from the spoken to the written language.
Obviously the claims for a one group experiment are narrower than for a two
group design; rather than proving the superiority of the method over others it
shows, as they point out, that "skill in reading need not be emphasized in
language courses from the outset", i.e. Listening First does not handicap
reading, even if it is not provably better at teaching reading. Other work that
can be cited includes numerous studies by Asher (1981), Gary and Gary (1981a,b),
Nord (1980) or indeed the whole volume edited by Winitz (1981) and the paper by
Winitz and Garcia in this book.
a body of research this is undoubtedly impressive in quantity and in quality.
One problem is the short duration of many of the experiments, for instance the 8
hours teaching of Reeds et
or the 12 weeks of Postovsky (1974); short-term gains do not necessarily
correspond to long-term advantages. A more serious design fault is the choice of
the control teaching method. Either this is not made explicit, or else the
chosen method often does not seem representative of good contemporary teaching
methods today; none of the control groups to my knowledge used communicative
teaching methodology or Suggestopedia, for example. Mostly, the control method
seems to be a hard-line audiolingualism, where the students drill and repeat;
for instance "The Cs from the beginning followed the regular DLIWC Russian
program with great emphasis on habit-forming drills and oral practice" (Postovsky,
1974, p. 234). Also, the Hawthorn effect may have influenced both teachers and
students; any new method may show some gains simply because it is new.
overall question, however, is whether this research actually shows the paramount
importance of listening. What has been demonstrated is the efficiency of
teaching methods incorporating something called "listening", either in
isolation or in comparison with other methods. Teaching methods are notoriously
loose labels for a complex of techniques; Cook (1982) argues that structure
drills work because they involve cognitive processing and present a model of
conversation, rather than because they belong to an audiolingual method. In
other words, a teaching method is not a pure and straightforward
"treatment" for an experiment; everything that happens in the
classroom involves many different aspects of the learner's mind—memory,
motivation, aptitude, cognitive style, and so on. The choice between a method
that relies on "listening" as opposed to one that involves production
represents a choice in many other dimensions. In addition the results refer to
groups, not individuals; it has not been shown that for
an individual learner, listening
comes before production or is necessary for production. The Listening First
approach has at some point to show how listening and production are related in
the mind of the individual learner; the comparison of groups must eventually
yield to the analysis of the two skills in one learner.
First Language Acquisition
let us dispose of a pseudo-issue—the point that listening must come first
because a person cannot utter something before having heard it. In a logical
sense, perhaps, someone cannot produce, say, a present perfect "I have been
to Paris" if he or she has never heard an example of a present perfect. A
counter-argument is that, according to Chomskyans at any rate, some language may
already be present in the child's mind and external stimuli only present
"triggers" for activating this rather than stimuli for learning it.
Part of the problem is defining what counts as hearing something or producing
something; the usual argument against stimulus-response theories of learning
was, indeed, that people can produce sentences they have never heard before;
hearing an example of the present perfect may enable a speaker to produce
sentences that are novel, e.g. "I have never met a Martian who didn't like
gorgonzola". In the case of a second language, the necessity for having
heard examples is not total; something in the new language may be based on the
first language; transfer as well as language experience can be a source. More
importantly, perhaps, the belief that it is necessary for someone to hear
before he can use it does not prove that it is necessary to understand
he can use it. I can happily use the word "irrefragible" in
conversation, with slight idea of what it means—a habit not unknown in student
essays. The main issue, which will be developed later, is that listening and
speaking both take place at many levels. Minimally, it is necessary to have
encountered the form at a phonetic and phonological level to be able to use it
later. But uttering something does not necessarily involve understanding it.
cannot be said that the relationship between listening and speaking has been
discussed very frequently in first language acquisition research in recent
years; there is not a great body of evidence one way or the other, even if there
are numerous opinions.
First advocates normally cite a particular set of first language sources as
their evidence for the priority of listening, in particular Lenneberg (1962) and
Fraser, Bellugi and Brown (1963). the Lenneberg article, for instance, is
discussed in Gary and Gary (1981a) and Nord (1980). It described the case of an
8-year-old boy who had "never been heard to use any words" but showed
by nodding that he could understand a range of questions about a story,
including those "couched in complex grammatical constructions, such as the
passive voice". This constitutes a neat refutation of the extreme position
that to understand you have to be able to speak. But a single instance of a
pathological condition may bear witness to the mind's extraordinary adaptability
rather than to the priority of listening over speaking in normal development.
second experiment, by Fraser, Bellugi and Brown (1963), is often cited by
Listening First advocates, e.g. Postovsky (1974), Winitz and Reeds (1973), Nord
(1980), Winitz (1981). This experiment asked children aged 3 to choose between
pictures illustrating grammatical distinctions such as "The sheep is
jumping" versus "The sheep are jumping". The children were tested
in three ways: imitation, in which they repeated the experimenter's sentences;
comprehension, in which they had to point to the appropriate picture; and
production, in which "After repeating the names of the pictures, E
one picture at a time and asks S
it". Results showed children were best at imitation, next best at
comprehension, and worst at production. Lovell and Dixon (1967) confirmed this
with children aged 2-6 and ESN children. But there are basic problems with this
experiment. One, pointed out by Fernald (1972), is that the scoring system
itself biased the results against production; if he used the Fraser et
system, Fernald found that comprehension was better than production, but if he
used his own scheme, they came out the same. A second problem is the nature of
the tasks. Fraser et
defined production as what happened in the production task, i.e. repetition of
the correct sentence. This hardly counts as normal production; Fernald claims it
is "highly artificial and more closely resembles delayed imitation than
spontaneous speech production". The child's production depends upon his
prior comprehension of the two adult sentences; by the nature of the task,
production could not exceed comprehension and is likely to fall short, for many
accidental reasons—loss of attention, memory span, etc. The tasks themselves
can also be attacked because they are unequal in terms of memory; production
involved storing two sentences whereas comprehension involved storing one. In
addition, Cocking et
have shown that picture tasks produce biases in the language; Baird (1972) has
shown that the statistical interpretation is insecure and the results could well
be due to chance. So several question-marks hang over the original research by
Fraser, Bellugi and Brown. For the purposes of the present discussion two final
points should be made. One is that the research compares performance, not
learning—how comprehension related to production at a single moment rather
than how they related over time. Secondly, it should be remembered that what the
children were actually best at was imitation; an audiolingualist could claim
this as support for getting the students to repeat sentences as much as an
advocate of Listening First could cite it to support making the students listen.
some first language studies show the opposite—children could produce things
they could not comprehend. Keeney and Wolfe (1972) tested children's command of
Subject-Verb agreement in English under three conditions: spontaneous speech to
the experimenter, elicited imitation of correct and incorrect sentences, and
comprehension of noun and verb inflections by sentence completion and pointing
to pictures. Children between 3 and 4:11 almost always had correct agreement in
imitation and production but scored no better than chance in comprehension. The
authors' explanation is that production can rely solely on syntactic rules, such
as Subject-Verb agreement; comprehension is based on semantics, since it relates
the rule to the situation. If their results are taken as seriously as Listening
Firsters have accepted those of Fraser et
might make up a powerful argument for teaching production first. However, again
it depends on the meaning of "listening"; Keeney and Wolfe are making
the same point as Gary and Gary about the inherent communicativeness of
listening: the different levels of listening need to be separated.
counter-example in the first language literature can be found in experiments
with reading. Here it has been claimed that "generating" sentences or
words oneself improves memory compared with just reading them aloud (Graf,
1980), though there is some controversy over this (Ghatala, 1983). Work with
speech functions also showed that producing a sentence oneself helped one to
remember it compared with hearing someone else say it (Jarvella and Collas,
the basis for the view that listening precedes speaking in first language
learning is far from well-founded. In a review, Ingram (1974) rejects the
hypothesis that "all comprehension of language is complete before any
production occurs" as far too strong; he also rejects the view that
"complete comprehension of a specific grammatical point is complete before
it is ever produced" because of evidence that children use constructions
with only a partial grasp of their meaning; instead he accepts that "Some
comprehension of a specific grammatical form or construction occurs before it is
produced", a much weaker alternative.
if it is accepted that listening precedes production in LI acquisition, using
this as evidence for Listening First depends upon a close similarity between
first and second language learning. Yet after a decade of articles, this issue
remains substantially unresolved. Cook, Long and McDonough (1979) suggest that
there is no simple, overall answer; specific areas of L2 learning need to be
compared with specific areas of LI learning. It is true that most comparisons
have come up with similarities rather than differences, for example the survey
by McLaughlin (1977); but this cannot be taken for granted in areas that have
not been explored. LI research can only be applied to L2 teaching if it has in
effect been replicated with L2 learners. What is missing is direct evidence from
L2 learning, as we saw in another connection in the last chapter.
general problem with the evidence from teaching studies and from first language
acquisition is the term "listening": has the question been posed
precisely enough? What does it in fact mean to say someone "listens"
to something or "hears" something or "understands"
something? Fraser et
point out, "Any infant that can clap its hands can appear to its parents to
understand 'pat-a-cake'; any animal that can run to its food dish can appear to
its owner to understand 'Come and get it'". Throughout the discussion we
have come across the vagueness of "listening" in particular contexts;
for example, the difference that is often made in the Listening First research
between "hearing" at a mechanical level and "understanding"
meaning. Mostly, listening is equated with listening for meaning, with full
understanding, rather than with the dog's ability to respond to "Come and
get it". But is it being compared with oral production at the same level of
meaningfulness? Gary and Gary (198 lb) insist that the student must respond
actively to what he hears; "By listening we mean active
process whereby the learner is actively attempting to understand and respond to
oral communication carefully presented in a meaningful context". This they
contrast with statements about production, such as "much oral practice—at
least as commonly used in the classroom—is manipulative rather than
communicative". In terms of methods, as we have already pointed out, it may
be that the comparison unfairly contrasts listening techniques involving deeper
levels of meaning with audiolingual or grammar-translation methods that
effectively ban meaningful use of the language. Turning to L2 learning rather
than teaching, the same point can be put in terms of a "depth of
processing" model. Craik (1973) proposes that memory works at different
levels, going from a superficial phonological level of processing through
progressively deeper levels of syntax and semantics; Perfetti (1978) has devised
a model of listening based on seven such levels. The deeper the processing, the
more effective; semantically-processed information is learnt better than that
which is just processed phonologically, as for example the research by Graf
(1980) and Jarvella and Collas (1974) suggests. The Listening First evidence is
open to the interpretation that listening and production are not being compared
at equivalent depths of processing—"deep" listening is contrasted
with "shallow" production. Anything that engages the mind sufficiently
will facilitate learning, regardless of whether listening or production is
involved. To rephrase Krashen, all teaching methods work in proportion to the
extent that they involve the students' minds in deeper levels of processing.
as with age, this is only one interpretation of the research. Only because of
the painstaking use of experimental approaches by the Listening First proponents
is it possible to pose such questions; methods that have not been researched in
this way cannot even begin to be questioned. While it is possible to take issue
with the conclusions arrived at in Listening First, it is on the right track in
seeking to provide research support for its proposals. It would be a pleasant
surprise if other factions in language teaching methodology sought such rigorous
justification of their ideas, rather than taking refuge in assertions and
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