Acquisition and Participation: Two Metaphors Are Better Than One. (Language Teaching & Learning)

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper is concerned with the use of metaphors to describe language learning and how they may assist and hinder our understanding of the language learning process. It aims to show how the most established metaphor for learning, acquisition, is now complemented by the increasingly frequent use of a new metaphor, participation. Using both metaphors, the paper presents an analysis of the strategies used by learners of English preparing for external examinations on a self-directed basis. Practical examples of both acquisition and participation lead to the conclusion that more than one metaphor can increase the level of insight into language learning.

Introduction

The question of how far language influences thought is one which has not yet been resolved. While the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis -- that language determines thought-- has been largely rejected as too extreme, the link between language and thought, including weaker forms of the hypothesis, remains of interest to researchers in linguistics and other fields including cultural psychology (e.g. Bruner, 1996) and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (e.g. O'Connor and Seymour, 1995). The acceptance of any link between the language we use to describe things and activities and how we understand them, suggests it is imperative that the description of learning itself receives careful attention. This paper is concerned with the use of metaphors to describe language learning and how they may assist and hinder our understanding of the language learning process. It aims to show how the most established metaphor for learning, acquisition, is now complemented by the increasingly frequent use of a new metaphor, participation. Using both metaphors, the paper presents an analysis of the strategies used by learners of English preparing for external examinations on a self-directed basis. Practical examples of both acquisition and participation lead to the conclusion that more than one metaphor can increase the level of insight into language learning.

Acquisition and Participation

Language learning reflects the trend in education in general where the dominant metaphor for learning in recent decades has been one of acquisition, as acknowledged by Sfard (1998). The acquisition metaphor (AM) suggests that knowledge is a commodity to be acquired by individual learners. Other words associated with the acquisition metaphor include facts, ideas, content, accumulate and construct. However, Sfard also points out that an alternative metaphor for learning, participation (PM), has recently been receiving increasing attention in educational literature. By replacing knowledge with knowing and having/possessing knowledge with doing, PM can be viewed `as a process of becoming a member of a certain community'. While Sfard insists that acquisition and participation are not simply new terms for the two extremes of the individual V social axis, it is clear that PM is closest to the neo-Vygotskian socio-cultural theory of learning, as promoted by Wertsch (1985), Rogoff (1995) and Abbott and Ryan (2000), and, specifically in relation to language learning, the contributors to Lantolf (2000). It therefore reflects a Cultural/Situated view of mind (see Bredo, 1994; Bruner 1996). AM, however, spans the two views of mind, Situated when knowledge is viewed as a construction and Computational when knowledge is viewed as transmission.

In language learning the acquisition metaphor has been particularly prevalent, most noticeably in the generally accepted description of language learning as second language acquisition (SLA). The acceptance of this term is evident in the titles of such benchmarking works as Larsen-Freeman and Long's An Introduction to Second Language Acquisition Research (1991) and Ellis's The Study of Second Language Acquisition (1994). However, as Ellis (ibid) points out, there is no agreed definition of `acquisition'. Two decades ago Krashen differentiated between language acquisition as a subconscious process, `very similar to the process children use in acquiring first and second languages' (Krashen, 1988) and conscious language learning where error correction and the presentation of explicit rules are important. …