Wednesday, 11 March 2015

The myth of neat histories

Pure evil!
You've probably heara version of this story of before.

A long long time ago in a place called the 1950s there lived an evil wizard called 'Skinner' who lived in a castle with his many adherents. Skinner was a cruel man who practised a version of dark sorcery called 'behaviourism' which generally involve torturing animals and turning men into machines all in the name of science. His worst torture device was the Skinner box into which he put all manner of creatures including his own children. 

Skinner believed that people were really just machines and so if you wanted some kind of response from them all you needed was stimulus. Something like an electric shock would probably do the trick. 

Poor misguided TEFL teachers were caught in the hypnotic gaze of Skinner and developed a ridiculous  style of teaching called the Audio-lingual method. This involved forcing students to sit in a classroom listening to recordings of conversations for hours on end all the while repeating  mantras like so many zombies. Skinner enjoyed this depraved form of torture. In fact it helped him stay young.


One day, a brave young hero called Noam appeared and with a swish of his sword of logic he defeated the evil Skinner. Chomsky showed that language was innate and that people didn't have to be robots. On this day pair work was born and since language was innate no one needed to teach grammar anymore. Native speaker teachers everywhere rejoiced. 

OK I'm exaggerating but this is the way the history of these events often seems to be presented. For example:

...Behavioralist accounts of language learning became popular in the 1920s and 1930s... (64) In Behaviorist theory, conditioning is the result of stimulus response and reinforcement (51)...In a book called verbal behavior, the psychologist Bernard [sic] Skinner suggested that much the same pattern happens in language learning (52)...Behaviorism was directly responsible for audiolingualism (52)" (Harmer 2007)

And Harmer is by no means alone. Wherever you look, from Richards and Rogers, Ellis or Lightbown and Spada, the story is made up of more or less the same building blocks. Behaviourism? check,  lab animals? check, habit-formation? check,   Skinner? check, Chomsky? check? The pattern of events is clear and well-known by most teachers, but is it true? 

Something about the story niggles and my own personal dislike (not very evidence-based) of everything Chomskyan led me on a journey into the odd world of one of the most famous academic debates in history. Unfortunately this project continues to sprawl horribly out of control but I would like to share with you a few interesting things I've managed to find out. So here are the top 5 myths and misconceptions about the infamous Chomsky/Skinner debate and its aftermath:


1. Chomsky's review was a forensic deconstruction of Skinner's verbal behaviour 

Well...it was an attempt deconstruction of 'something' - though it wasn't Skinner's book Verbal Behaviour. In fact all the evidence suggests Chomsky either didn't read Verbal Behaviour or didn't understand it. The reason we can make this assumption is that Chomsky makes several mistakes in his review, attributing, for example, classical behaviourist beliefs to Skinner, whereas Skinner wrote about 'operant condition' which was a different beast altogether. 

MacCorquodale, in a comprehensive review, notes, that Chomsky's review didn't receive a reply from Skinner or any other psychologist, not because they were 'defeated' but rather because "...Chomsky’s actual target is only about one-half Skinner, with the rest a mixture of odds and ends of other behaviourism and some other fancies of vague origin." Chomsky's review has also been criticised for misquoting Skinner and taking quotes out of context. Skinner himself said of the review:
let me tell you about Chomsky...I published Verbal Behaviour in 1957, in 1958 I received a  55 page type-written review by someone whom I had never heard of named Noam Chomsky. I read half a dozen pages, and saw that he had missed the point of my book and read no further. (see the second video 5:50)
Also interesting is that most of the other reviews of verbal behaviour at the time were positive. This by itself doesn't mean Chomsky was wrong, but it might make us pause for thought. 

And rather than 'forensic', Chomsky's review was just really really mean. MacCorquodale, described the review as "ungenerous to a fault; condescending, unforgiving, obtuse, and ill-humoured". I urge you to read a few pages and see what you think. I'm not one to be overly concerned with comments about the 'tone' of someone's argument, but Chomsky actually seems to be personally offended by Skinner's book. Skinner often commented that he couldn't understand why Chomsky seemed so angry. A sample of the language can be seen in  Virues-Ortega 2006's review:
perfectly useless,” “tautology,” “vacuous,” “looseness of the term,” “entirely pointless,” “empty,” “no explanatory force,” “paraphrase,” “serious delusion,” “full vagueness,” “no conceivable interest,” “quite empty,” “notion,” “no clear content,” “cover term,” “pointless,” “quite false,” “said nothing of any significance,” “play-acting at science” (from )
The tone isn't so much the problem as the chilling effect this kind of academic writing can have on others. When a writer's work is discussed in such a dismissive tone it can give the impression to the uninitiated that the matter is settled, -which in this case, was very far from the truth. 

2. Skinner's Behaviourism led to Audiolingualism 

This is a tricky fish to fry. In order to answer this you need to be able to authoritatively identify Skinner's behaviourism, Audiolingualism and then the link between them. First we should examine the timeline. Skinner was born in 1905 and published Verbal Behaviour in 1957. Chomsky's review came out in 1959. The first mentions of the audiolingual approach were in the mid 1950s. But it starts to really get mentioned in the early 1960s. This would mean that ALM became popular AFTER Chomsky's review. 

Another problem is that there seems to be a lot of confusion about what the audiolingual method actually was. When reading Lado's 1964 book entitled 'language teaching: a scientific approach', ALM is describe simply as the approach where (in contrast to grammar translation) speaking and listening are taught first. Yet others, like Cummins and Davidson conflate the audiolingual approach and the 'scientific approach'. 

things get more confusing as many others like Hall (here) and Lacorte suggest that ALM was synonymous with or grew from 'the army method' in 1945 (certainly before both Verbal Behaviour and Chomsky's review). While Coady and Huckin suggest that ALM is also known as 'the structural approach' by those who created it. They pin this honour on Fries in 1945. And Harmer, suggests it came from the Direct Method (p.64) There are also mentions of contrastive analysis being an important component by some authors while not being mentioned at all by others. 

As  Peter Castagnaro* notes neither Brookes, Fries or Lado (three names often associated with ALM) make much mention of Skinner at all in any of their books. True they use language associated with stimulus and response, -but why could this not  be inspired by Pavlov, rather than Skinner? (Harmer does link to earlier behaviourists Watson and Raynor). The only person who actually draws a direct link between Skinner and ALM was a critic of ALM, Wilga Rivers in "the psychologist and the foreign language teacher" and Castagnaro believes that Rivers' book is the cause of much misunderstanding, noting that it was Rivers who "saddled Skinner with being ALM’s theoretical parent"(523).

So, if we believe the literature on ALM the approach came from the Army Method, the Structural Approach, Contrastive Analysis or the Direct Method and was big in the 40s-50s (lightbown and Spada), or the 50s-60s (Richards & Rogers, Thornbury). It may or may not have been based on a book written in 1957 and then undone by a review written in 1959...even though, according to Richards and Rogers, the term Audiolingualism wasn't invented until 1964 -that's five years after Chomsky's review. Am I the only one feeling confused? 

*More than anyone else Peter Castagnaro (thanks to Harmer for this link) has attempted to unweave the knotted misunderstandings surrounding ALM. I would direct anyone to read his article for a much more concise examination of this topic.


3. Chomsky's review lead to the death of Audiolingualism 

In his ELTJ review of reviews, Alan Maley describes Chomsky's review as 'destructive' and one that 'changed the course of events'. Now while it is undeniable that Chomsky's review was influential and made his name, did Chomsky kill off Audiolingualism? 

After reading the previous section it becomes clear that this is unlikely. Not only does the timeline not work, but simply put methods and approaches are fashions and as such aren't killed off by logic of any kind. If methods are killed off, who killed off the silent way and suggestopedia? 


Almost certainly ALM just withered on the vine. In education, as Swan among others has noted, fashions rule and these fashions are often polar opposites. With Grammar translation reading and writing was paramount. Next came methods that banned reading and writing and translation of any kind. That an approach where people mechanically practiced  artificial sentences while worrying greatly about making mistakes should be replaced by an approach which allowed free 'authentic' conversation with little care for errors, should surprise no one at all. 

It's also difficult to properly perform an autopsy on the undead. As authors, like Scrivener note, many of the the techniques of 'ALM' "continue to have a strong influence over many classrooms"(38)

4. Chomsky's review led to the death of Behaviorism

Again, not true, Behaviorism carried on and continues to this day( see herehere and here). Skinners' book still sells well (better actually than Chomsky's response) and Skinner is considered one of the most important figures in psychology

Behaviorism is successful, despite the image problem, precisely because it works. It works in treating autistic children and if you've ever had any kind of therapy, it's likely it was CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) which is another.

5. Chomsky's new linguistic paradigm is accepted by most linguists today

Absolutely not. Chomsky ideas are accepted by few. The idea of Universal Grammar has been shown to be a myth, the Poverty of Stimulus argument has been rejected, and could only apply to syntax anyway. Vocabulary development in children has clearly been shown to be entirely affected by 'stimulus'. the generative grammar paradigm he created has been rewritten several times by the Chomsky himself in a failed attempt to salvage it. 

A recent scathing review by Behme describes Chomsky as not seriously engaging with criticism, misrepresenting the work of others and providing little or no evidence for his claims. She highlights, as many others have, his tendency to "[ridicule] the works of others". These claims are not surprising since they are pretty much the same claims made about his attack on Skinner 50 years earlier. 

Behme also lists Chomsky's other tactics, such as claiming his opponents are 'irrational' or have mental issues. This may seem shocking until we read papers by his former student Paul Postals who writes “After many years, I came to the conclusion that everything he says is false. He will lie just for the fun of it...It was like playing chess with extra pieces. It was all fake.” Postal also suggests Chomsky has written "the most irresponsible passage ever written by a linguist in the entire history of linguistics". 

An interesting note for all your corpus fans out there is that Chomsky has been a consistent critic of Corpus Linguistics considering them pointless and the data worthless. Rather, he suggests, Native Speakers should just sit around and think up examples: 

Chomsky: the verb 'perform' cannot be used with mass word objects: one can perform a task, but one cannot perform a labour.
Hatcher: How do you know, if you don’t use a corpus and have not studied the verb perform?
Chomsky: How do I know? Because I am a native speaker of the English language. (source)
One can 'perform magic', of course. This extract I think sums up Chomsky perfectly; unassailable arrogance.

Reality is not the neat history presented in so many EFL histories. In truth, almost every chain in the link is broken. Skinner wasn't the behaviorist he's painted as, he didn't inspire audiolingualism -whatever that is, and he wasn't overthrown by Chomsky, who isn't quite the 'hero' we might imagine. We should not be surprised that the facts about Skinner are often wrong in ELT as he is often misunderstood by psychologists too

As Hunter and Smith note ELT tend to package complex history into convenient bundles. This packaging may make digestion easier but it often involves cutting the corners off to make things fit. Sometimes the facts are fudged to give us a pleasing narrative where 'traditional' (read: dull and wrong) methods are superseded by all the great stuff we're doing these days. It's a nice story to tell ourselves but reality is more messy.