Why am I a Mentalist? : A perspective into formal language teaching

Fabian Marbaniang
English and Communication Department, MLCU

As an English Language Teacher, one does not deny that the traditional ways of learning, through imitation and drills, have contributed considerably to the learning of a target language such as English. This is to a point where the target language has become more usable than the native language. One does not deny the fact that S->R theory has seen the light of day in almost all learners of a foreign language. The focus of learning then has relied heavily on the need to perform and score high ranks.  Perspectives have changed today without doing away entirely with the old school. The learner takes the centre stage. Speak of the learner at centre stage, this is reflected in all aspects of how conducive a classroom is arranged to enable maximum participation of the learners. This is indicative or rather this is symbolic of how much importance is given to the learner learning. What exactly is this learning?
The Mentalist approach in its theoretical proposition suggests that all that is needed for learning is “the adequate exposure to the target language which will give ideas to the kid to form a hypothesis on linguistic utterances” (Demirezen, 1989: 158).  Input, hypothesis testing and re-constructing of the utterance enables learning and the development of a language. The focus is the processing of an input and not any other factor that provokes or stimulates such processing. This is not to deny the presence and the possibility of social-affective factors that enable learning. This is neither to acknowledge and discuss the role social – affective factors have in the learning of a language.

The aim of any teacher today, is to enhance the wider gathering of knowledge and to also enable the deeper analysis of the knowledge gathered. The processing of the information gathered as knowledge has to be more than it is for knowledge sake. The processing of that information received from input is for creating something new, something better to achieve wants and needs. This occurs with every human being and at every age. Recognition of this fact in a classroom is a tool that can satisfy a need of both the teacher and the learner. As human beings, do we not keep learning? Creativity in utterances is essential whether it is in imparting knowledge, facilitating an activity or learning from the imparted knowledge or from the activity conducted. Of course the creative aspects could temporarily remain dormant due to factors such as casualness and lethargy with either party. To bring the discussion back into focus, the brain continues to process at an unconscious level.

The Language Acquisition Device (LAD) and therefore Mentalism have somehow found refuge in the ‘creative’ arguments of the learner. Indeed one has to take cognisance of the fact that there has to be a starting point, a trigger and a faculty that allows such creative aspects in language utterance. The normal formation of the foetus also involves the formation of the LAD. The birth of a normal child is indicated by the function of the LAD of which, with time, the results are observable. There would probably come a time where the LAD itself can be created instead of waiting for it to be formed. (Cloning was never thought to be possible). The LAD has to be awakened, to be activated. This is possible only if there is a purpose for its awakening. The purpose could be instinctual. This is where social –affective factors come into play too. If the LAD can be activated, it could also remain dormant.
The function of the language faculty is similar. The language faculty among adult learners has to be activated for further learning and creativity. It is in this light that reading (a stimulus) is strongly recommended to learners of a foreign language. It is in this light that reading (as a means to exposure to a target language) is strongly recommended to learners of a second language. `

The learning and the development of language in both children and adults can be attributed to the awakening of the LAD in children and the language faculty among adult learners. This is most essential to academic learning. The process of learning and development is also similar to the acquisition of a language as a “Maturational Process” as suggested by D. A. Wilkins (1972).  “Maturational” relates to advance ability of a learner to be able to process further complex information so as to produce complex linguistic structures as “organise linguistic events”. Such ability is attributed to a mental process that is subjected to testing in real situations. It is the cognitive capacity that is in play when a child or an adult learner of a foreign/second language uses to discover the structure of the language spoken around him.

Maturing in learning and development of language could further be expanded into what the learner may deem necessary to fulfil those needs and wants. The ‘systematic departure from language used by adults’ among children, is an indication of the mental process that is individualistic yet having a common pattern among all learners. The brain continues to absorb, to process and to create, if allowed. A human life is considered unique depending on how much the brain has been allowed to process information. The source of the information is irrelevant. Babies are considered to be smart or slow depending on how fast they can pick up information, how long they can retain it and whether or not that information can be retrieved. Among adults retaining and retrieving of information must be accompanied by the depth of their ability to analyse, presenting to other human beings, the scope of wider possibilities. This does not pertain to language learning alone. One can therefore be amazed at how the brains of the world have contributed to the world. We called to mind the brains of the late Steve Jobs who affected millions by being the brains behind Apple.

The discussions above have not been placed within any given situation but do strongly suggest a very natural surrounding for learning. The processing of information therefore could oscillate between the conscious and the unconscious. The awakening of the LAD, the activation of the language faculty, the dormant state of both the LAD and the language faculty, could occur at both levels. Maturity is not an effort let alone being a conscious process. The mental process is abstract and observable only when utterances are produced as a result of the mental process.

An English Language teacher who has made his presence felt in the English classroom allows his eyes to wander around the periphery of the room, his mind, focussed intently on the learning that he hopes would take place among the learners, in an hour’s time. What could be the thoughts of the teacher? In spite of all the efforts of what has been made by teacher for yet another English class, the approach to the content that is to be taught depends on what he presently sees, he presently smells and he presently observes in the classroom. The teacher would not be left in such a situation if teacher was one who did not focus on the learners’ readiness to learn. Learner centred approach is one that recognises and respects the ability of individual brains to be process for learning. Learning here, would be the ability of the learners to receive and process organised input received for to fulfil personal want and needs. The aim of the lesson is to ‘raise’ the level of thinking of the students for further learning and development of the target language.

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