Why are you “CI Folk” jerks?

This is one more in my ‘common objections’ to communicative approaches. And it was occasioned by @MetalClassicist, referencing this thread. I’ve not tried to directly address that thread, but somewhat more a general treatment of this topic.

Firstly, let me acknowledge that plenty of “CI-folks” can be jerks. I confess, I have at times been obnoxiously provocative about some of these topics, a vice I am working against.

Sometimes being a jerk has nothing to do with their language teaching camp, they’re just jerks. Other times, well, is there something about CI that makes its advocates annoying, sanctimonious, insufferable? I want to take some time to explore this topic and give some perspectives on it.

Let me also put in a little terminology disclaimer. “CI Folks” is not a helpful label. Hendrickson’s recent ‘the new pedagogy/ies’ is broad, but perhaps so broad as to be undescriptive. I’m going to talk in hugely oversimplifying terms today about CA – ‘communicative approaches’ (even as I recognise that that label itself is not the best), and G/T approaches (which I do think fall into a more discretely identifiable camp).

Secondly, then, I think we ought to recognise that many people who now are in the CA camp, and firmly in it, have suffered professionally and personally the disdain and conflict from G/T people. That’s not been my experience, generally, beyond random internet snipes, but I am also not a school-based teacher. It’s also relatively easy to forget, depending on your circles, or social media slice, that the vast bulk of (Latin) teachers are doing G/T, and a very decent chunk of modern language teachers are too. The CA slice of the language teacher pie is a minority, and often feels the need to justify itself, its very existence, and to prove that CA is better for both language acquisition and performing on old-model standardised testing. All of which to say, G/T folks can be plenty jerks too.

Thirdly, let’s recognise that from the CA side, there is a fundamental shift at the level of belief about how languages are learned, that makes them view G/T itself as problematic, in a way that G/T people don’t think about CA. CA people have come to the belief (by whatever means – reading research, doing some workshops, their own personal anecdata) that they way humans acquire language is primarily through comprehensible input, and that the contribution of explicit grammar instruction to this acquisition is somewhere between marginal and zero. I put it this way because primarily and marginal are important qualifiers here – there’s a large slice of second language acquisition research that doesn’t embrace the more extreme position of “only through CI” and “no benefit to grammar”. But, and a big but, that same very large slice reasonably thinks that CI is primary, and that grammar is marginal, to greater or lesser degrees.

If you come to accept that belief, and then you look at G/T, your only reasonable conclusion is that G/T is an incredibly ineffective method for helping learners acquire a language. This is a belief that G/T teachers do not generally share. G/T teachers are much more likely to have a set of beliefs that goes something like this: “languages can be taught in various ways. Different students and situations respond to different learning styles. People, especially teens and adults, benefit from explicit grammar instruction, because they cannot learn an L2 in the same way as an L1. Because Latin (or X) is an ancient/historical/complex language, it requires grammar + translation in order to produce accurate understanding of the language. Because there’s no need to order pizza and lattes in Ancient Greek, communicative approaches are amusing trifles, not serious learning. I don’t mind CA people, but let’s just recognise there are different methods to the same goal.”
I’ve bundled a whole bunch of things in there, not all of which apply to any particular individual. I think the last one is telling though – G/T people tend to think of CA as an alternative method to the same goal. Contrast – CA people think that G/T does not lead to acquisition and that it is not an alternative method to the same goal, but an alternative method that leads to a different goal.

Fourthly, CA people have often had a conversion-like experience. They almost all were G/T people, sometimes for decades of teaching. They know G/T, they know what it’s like, they know what it produces, and then something happened. Often, that is an experience of learning via a CA – perhaps a different language, perhaps the language they teach. And they experience acquiring a language through a CA in a whole new way. And then they discover the research, and it totally challenges, and overturns, their view of how languages are acquired. And then, often, they experience very, very negative pushback from G/T people. (It is a universal law of my twitter account that posting a thread that is negative about G/T and provocative about CA, will produce a reaction saying, ‘yes but G/T is necessary’). All of which pushes them to adopt a position that is very, “I was wrong, but now I have seen the light, and I feel like G/T defrauded me of something – it promised acquisition and it delivered grammar”.
That’s a very powerful set of belief forming factors there. I think you can see why CA people come to a position where they think relatively negatively about G/T, and take very unkindly to G/T people arguing with them about it, especially if they’ve experienced strong pushback in their own professional contexts.

Fifthly, I would offer the reflection that humans are social creatures, and prone to identifying ourselves on the basis of difference. So we form factions, and we fight it out. There are things about the CA-G/T division that simply reflect group dynamics and human politics. That is one ‘why’ for the heat, volatility, and tension that can dominate these discussions. Is it ideal? No. I really appreciate those on the CA bandwagon who make repeated and good-conscience attempts to build bridges, work with and affirm G/T people, and invite them into communicative approaches gently, respectfully, and with graciousness. We all need more of that in our lives.

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