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What is the Role of SLA in Day-to-Day Classroom Teaching?
University of Texas's Charles Nelson Looks at Theory vs. Practice

Charles Nelson's recent remarks on the TESL-L listserv sparked a lively debate over the relevance of second language acquisition research. He revised his original post and submitted this provocative article for ESL MiniConference Online. You can read a response by Central Missouri State's Bob Yates here

Charles NelsonTheory is important, but I have rarely seen linguistics or second language acquisition theories to be helpful in teaching ESL. Linguistics does not tell us how language is acquired, unless one subscribes to a UG in which case it's black-boxed and has no application to the classroom. Linguistics provides formal theories that have nothing to do with teaching. Using these theories to teach a second language is like trying to determine what software was used in printing out a document by looking at the document instead of the code. Even SLA theories have not added to our understanding of how people learn a language. They DESCRIBE different strategies or stages of language learners, but they do not EXPLAIN how people LEARN and go from one stage to another. This is a crucial distinction for teaching languages.

I've had many good teachers in many fields who obviously knew how to teach (theory of pedagogy) and knew their content matter (sociology, biology, etc.). However, content matter is not the same as a theory of content matter. These teachers did not teach a theory of their field, and I don't teach second language acquisition or linguistics to L2 learners: I teach the content of the language, English in my case. I also don't teach pedagogical theory to my students; however, unlike SLA theories, pedagogical theory does guide my teaching practices. For those who are in an MA or PhD TEFL program, naturally you would want to teach how people learn second languages, but what do we really know about this topic? There's an input hypothesis, input-output, communicative approach, etc. It's kind of hard to imagine learning a language without input and without practicing output. These theories can give teachers a stance, and an important one, that language is considerably more than reciting grammar rules. But what do they say about teaching or learning a language? Only that what you practice is what you learn - whether it's reading, speaking, writing, listening, reciting grammar rules, or playing basketball.

I happened to have enjoyed my linguistics classes and found them fascinating, but I have seen little relevance to teaching a foreign language unlike theories of motivation and general learning. This is not to denigrate linguistic or SLA theories. The field of SLA is young, and theorists have to start somewhere. At this time, however, we simply know too little about SLA for these theories to be of use in teaching foreign languages. I'm still open, however, to learn of the relevance.

Comment by Charles Nelson, Instructor, Computer Research & Writing Laboratory, Division of Rhetoric & Composition, The University of Texas at Austin

2002 ESL MiniConference Online