Evald V. Ilyenkov and A. N. Leontev on Language Acquisition


0.0 Introduction

This paper will describe, and then compare and contrast, two very different ‘second-language’ acquisition activities. The underlying philosophical viewpoints that underpin each of the activities will also be drawn out and discussed. The advantages and short-comings of each of the approaches underlying the two activities considered in the paper will be elucidated. The two activities and respective language-acquisition approaches discussed in this paper are (a) a memorisation activity, and its corresponding behaviourist underpinning; and (b) a social peer-interview report exercise and its corresponding social constructivist underpinning. It will be argued that while memorisation activities such as the one discussed in the paper are almost universally incorporated as some component of ‘second-language’ acquisition, its philosophical underpinning is fundamentally flawed. Wrote-learning and memorisation are a function of the wide-spread social norm that classrooms are the best place to learn languages. Memorisation caters to the rationalisation of education as an ‘outcomes based’ practice, which reifies human existence. Against the behaviourist philosophical underpinning of memorisation activities and its attendant consequences for education, it will be argued that a social constructivist position should be taken towards language acquisition, such as that embodied in the chosen activity presented.

1.0.0 – Main Section

1.1.0 – Description of Activities

1.1.1 – Activity One

The first activity considered in this paper is a very simple one, but it is more or less ubiquitous within language acquisition programs. It is actually two different activities, but since the theoretical assumptions underpinning those two activities are so similar, they will be considered together as one unit, to give a broader and fuller understanding of those theoretical assumptions.

The first part of activity one is the memorisation of common English phrases such as ‘good morning!’, ‘how are you?’, and ‘congratulations!’ The L1 associated with this part of the activity is French, although one could just as easily transfer the activity into any other L1. The substantial content of the activity consists in having the English phrases (L2) to be learned placed alongside their equivalent French counterparts (L1). The execution of the activity could be oral, aural, or written. It would involve memorising the form and content of the English (L2) phrases with regard to the original French (L1) form and content.

The second part of the activity is the memorisation of English homophones. Homophones are words that sound the same, but have different meanings, and sometimes different spellings. Homophones are particularly difficult to learn because they seem at first quite arbitrary. This appearance of arbitrariness usually leads to activities such as this one, which are based on memorisation and wrote-learning. The purpose of this activity is to memorise the English (L2) words that are equivalent to the learner’s L1. Again, the execution of this activity could be oral, aural, written, or some combination of the three.

1.1.2 – Activity Two

The second activity considered by this paper is called ‘conversation grid’. A grid of questions is drawn up, and learners must converse and interact with one-another using their L2 in order to record answers to the questions on the grid. The activity is first modelled by the teacher and another student, or by two students, and then learners go off by themselves and learn via their peers. A key facet of this activity is that it stresses minimal teacher authority. Learners are encouraged to try dialogue for themselves and ‘muddle through’. The activity can be as easy or as difficult as the level of command of English of the learners requires. Beginner learners would discuss and record information about other’s hobbies, likes and dislikes, or occupations. More advanced learners could discuss more abstract topics, and could be required to write more fuller and complex written answers to the prescribed questions. The purpose of activity two is to involve learners in social interaction, as opposed to the first activity. Activity two emphasises the communication of meaning, as opposed to the mastery of technical linguistic forms.

1.2.0 – Theoretical Underpinnings of Activities

The two activities that were chosen to be considered in this paper are based on very different views about personhood, the mind, and learning. The two different views manifested in the above two activities will now be considered.

1.2.1 – Activity One

The theoretical assumptions about the mind and the person that underpin the first activity can be collectively labelled ‘behaviourism’. Behaviourism, as its name suggests, asserts that the truth about someone’s learning is located in their behaviour, and not in their consciousness. It is argued that behaviourism is a persuasive way of viewing learning because of the claim that ‘behavioural change can be perceived objectively and can therefore be measured’ (Louw, 1993: 220). Behaviourism proceeds from the view that

what we have learned cannot be directly perceived; but the resulting change in behaviour or performance can be. On the basis of our performance, it can be deduced what and how much we have learned (Louw, 1993: 220).

Behaviourism proceeds from the vulgar materialist and empiricist view of the mind that asserts that because consciousness does not disclose itself as physical or material substance, it shouldn’t be considered as actually real. The resulting theoretical framework that results from this philosophical assumption resolves all human behaviour into ‘stimuli’ and ‘responses’. The process by which a stimulus results in a response is called a ‘reflex’. Behaviourism treats learning as ‘conditioning’. Conditioning is the behaviourist concept for the process whereby a person’s the physical environment is altered in such a way that they develop new reflexes in order to deal with new stimuli.

1.2.2 – Activity Two

The learning theory called ‘social constructivism’ underpins the second activity. If behaviourism can be said to be the ‘most primitive’ form of descriptive and explanatory paradigm for learning, social constructivism could be said to be ‘two notches above it’.

The branch of social constructivism that will be accounted for here will be what has been termed ‘activity theory’. Activity theory developed out of Lev Vygotsky’s research on educational psychology. It is premised on dialectical materialism, a metaphysics that was developed in an attempt to resolve the ‘antimonies [contradictions] of bourgeois thought’ (Ilyenkov, 1977). Behaviourism is one side of the main contradiction within bourgeois thought. It asserts that truth is purely objective and measurable. The other side of the contradiction is idealism, which asserts that truth is more or less purely seated in the mind. (Whether or not cognitivism falls into this latter category is a matter of debate. Some argue cognitivism is merely an eclectic form of behaviourism.)

Dialectical materialism, in order to resolve this contradiction (what describes explains human being and thought? The environment or human mental states?), asserts that ‘it is not [a person’s] consciousness that determines their existence, but on the contrary, their social existence that determines their consciousness’ (Lukacs, 1971: 18). Activity theory expands on this metaphysics by asserting that language is but one component of a body of objective, but immaterial, socially constructed thought-forms that mediate subjective human interaction with the objective environment (Leontev, 1977).

1.3.0 – Discussion

The purpose of this section, the discussion section, is to compare and contrast the two lessons described above. The purpose of this is to explain how they are influenced by the above two different theories of language learning. From this explanation an argument will be built that asserts that social constructivism points to a deeper and fuller understanding of second-language acquisition. Very briefly, the behaviourist recipe for ‘learning’ an L2 (N.B. this method represents ‘classical conditioning’, as opposed to ‘operant conditioning’) is as follows:


There are two observations that we can make about the first activity and its behaviourist theoretical underpinning, and they are all a function of its adherence to a strict notion of positivism. First, the acquisition of the L2 is treated as discrete ‘appropriation’. In other words, the L2 acquisition is conceptualised as a kind of mathematical function: L2 goes in, comprehension comes out. Acquisition happens on one plane of existence. Behaviourists might argue that memorisation leads to a process behaviourists label ‘generalisation’, which means that wrote-learned words should come to be associated with broader contexts of communication, but as Louw & Edwards (Louw, 1993: 231) mention, it is not clear whether generalisation is as regular and predictable as behaviourists claim.

Second, the substance of the L2 to be learned is treated in a formalist manner. It is treated as form without content. In other words, the L2 is treated in almost perfect abstraction, within any regard being paid to the kinds of contexts in which one would use the language. A possible example of this is the complete lack of ability of the memorisation activity to help the learner understand the pragmatics that may be involved in communicating meaning using the words.

The fundamental basis of both of these observed problems with the memorisation activity is that its positivistic, behaviourist underpinning posits a view of the human mind and its learning that is passive and ‘contemplative’. It is certainly possible for a behaviourist to maintain that language is a dynamic and evolving human construction, but the learning process that they advocate asserts that language is a monolithic, static body of data that is ready and able to be abstracted and appropriated formalistically.

In this connection we can recall part of Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach: The chief defect of all materialism up to now … is that the object, reality, what we apprehend through our senses, is understood only in the form of the subject or contemplation; but not as sensuous human activity, as practice, … (Ilyenkov, 1977: 224) (Ilyenkov’s emphasis).

What this meant was that

[people were] considered the passive side of the subject-object relation, as the determined member of this inter-relation. Furthermore, man was abstracted here from the combination of social relations and transformed into an isolated individual. The [human]-environment relations were therefore interpreted as individual to all the rest, to everything that lay outside the individual brain and existed independently of it (Ilyenkov, 1977: 225).

But, crucially,

outside the individual, and independently of his will and consciousness, there existed not only nature but also the social historical environment, the world of things created by [humanity’s] labour, and the system of relations between [person] and [person], developed in the labour process. In other words, not only did nature by itself (‘in itself’ [to use Kantian terminology]) lie outside the individual, but also humanised nature, altered by labour (Ilyenkov, 1977: 225).

The social constructivist underpinning behind the second activity seeks to capture and help learners engage with the social historical environment embodied within language, within the L2. Although the activity is limited to the classroom environment, which is artificial and abstract, it can be hoped that the practical execution of the ideas underpinning the activity will lead to the development of skills by the learners that will enable them to go out into the real world and use language the way it really works: as a cultural tool, an artefact that mediates personal access to objective reality.

The advantage of the second activity over the first is that it relies on the active participation and involvement of the learner. By conversing with peers and the teacher, the learner taps into language’s function as a human cultural artefact. Language is a practical, social activity that requires more than just individualised, abstract memorisation. It requires grounding in concrete reality in order to be truly meaningful. In a sense it is ‘situated’ in different cultural activities that require active participation, not passive memorisation (Brown, 1989).

3.0.0 – Conclusion

In this paper, two different activities with very different approaches to language acquisition were compared and contrasted. The first activity, based in positivistic behaviourist theoretical assumptions about learning and the mind, treated language as an abstract, individualised experience. This position on language acquisition was argued to be philosophically wanting, lacking in substantiation in concrete evidence, and normatively unappealing. It was argued that the second activity rectified the shortcomings of the first. It viewed language as a body of human cultural signs and understandings that mediated subjective interaction with objective reality. Language in this sense was argued to be dynamic, and the underpinnings of the second activity’s approach was argued to be more powerful in both a descriptive and explanatory sense.


4.0.0 – References