* Cognitive Science and SLA

I recently had a discussion on the LinkedIn discussion board “ELT professionals Around the World” about Kurt Kohn where he elaborates on a social constructivist view of second language acquisition: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCfpD49YhSg . I suggested that “Kohn makes a series of assertions which rely on some kind of empathetic response rather than on rational argument and his model of communicative competence has nothing that I can see to add to the more rigorous work done by others. I really don’t get it: What does a social constructivist view of second language acquisition actually amount to? Nothing more than some kind of parasitic bolt-on, where poorly-defined constructs such as “emotion” and “ownership” and, indeed “social constructivism” are “added” as some kind of dubious “Added Value” to the cognitive framework.”

This was replied to, by a certain Eric, thus “Of course sociocultural theory is a “radical, fundamental re-examination” of the positivist Cartesian epistemology dominant in the social sciences (like SLA). Your comments suggest to me that you are a supporter of a postivist epistemology, correct? A postivist epistemology cannot allow for the exploration of social systems in the same way that a sociocultural one does. Postivistism relies on “constructs” that are generally reductionist (how else can we eliminate confounding factors?), whereas sociocultural construsts are inherently complex and participatory. When you use the phrase “no properly-defined constructs,” you are simply using a positivist approach to look at sociocultural theory. That is a logical trap, my friend, that a postmodern approach might allow you to abandon. The constructs are not “properly-defined” on purpose and that is the radical piece. Matt’s position is fine, as is your disagreement with it as sophistry–but you cannot disagree with it by relying on a catch-22.”

I replied: “I am certainly not a supporter of a positivist epistemology, and neither is anybody I know (Long, Schmidt, Gregg, Ellis, O’Grady, Pienemann, Robinson, White, Ortega, Doughty, Carroll, MItchell, Miles, Krashen, Cook, Widdowson, Skehan, Sorace,….) I, like all those mentioned adopt a rationalist epistemology, founded on the assumption that a real world exists out there independently of our perceptions of it, and that the twin pillars of logical rational thinking, coupled with empirically-based observation, are the best helps to building theories which attempt to explain various phenomena.

Branding critical rationalists “Positivists” is an old trick used by relativists to set up a straw-man argument. Briefly, the third wave of positivists (active in the 1920s and early 30s) argued that true science could only be achieved by:

1. Completely abandoning metaphysical speculation and any form of theology. According to the positivists such speculation only proposed and attempted to solve “pseudo-problems” which lacked any meaning since they were not supported by observable, measurable, experimental data.

2. Concentrating exclusively on the simple ordering of experimental data according to rules. By so doing, science would eventually dominate the world of experience: it was only a matter of time before all the secrets of this world were revealed and became “an open book” to the patient scientist. This implies that scientists should not speak of causes: there is no physical necessity forcing events to happen and all we have in the world are regularities between types of events. Furthermore, the positivists rejected the existence of, and thus any role for, unobservable or theoretical entities.

This epistemology makes positivist science the only valid knowledge, to the exclusion of any other type of “understanding”. Apart from establishing a strict demarcation line between positivist science and everything else, the positivists shared the underlying pretension of achieving some kind of global unification of the sciences. Such a programme is obviously tremendously ambitious, and, many would say, equally arrogant. The approach was, to a large extent, a reaction to the Aristotelian approach in the middle ages, and more recently, it was against the idealism of Hegel and Heidegger. It represents, in my opinion, the biggest wrong turn philosophy ever took.

Positivism represents a radical form of the “generalised description” approach to theory construction: it is totally opposed to causal “explanations”, and to most forms of philosophical argument. I choose an almost random anecdote to serve as an example of the positivist attitude. Einstein remarks in his autobiography that he was very struck by the “dogmatic faith” that Mach had in positivism, and that, in his opinion, the worst thing about Mach’s approach, as a faithful positivist, was the belief that science consisted in the mere ordering of empirical data, and the denial that imagination or creativity had any place. For the positivists, science is a question of discovery, that is, of uncovering information, not of invention.

Whatever positivists might do (if there are any left), critical rationalists don’t rely on constructs that are reductionist. All they ask is that constructs be described in such a way that everybody agrees precisely what is being talked about and what counts as evidence which might support or refute the hypothesis / theory / argument under examination. I don’t object to calls for a more open view of what “English” should be taught in ELT, nor to calls for more attention to be paid to social factors when trying to understand SLA. But Kohn seems to me to be making a mountain out of a molehill.

I agree (of course!) that there is room for both psycholinguistic and sociolinguistic aprroaches to SLA, and I agree that there is room for both qualitative and quantitative data in studies. The constructivists obviously have a point when they say (not that they said it first) that science is a social construct. Science is certainly a social institution, and, as has already been indicated, scientists’ goals, their criteria, their decisions and achievements are historically and socially influenced. And all the terms that scientists use, like “test”, “hypothesis”, “findings”, etc., are invented and given meaning through social interaction. Of course. But, and here is the crux, this does not make the results of social interaction (in this case, a scientific theory) an arbitrary consequence of it. Popper defends the idea of objective knowledge by arguing that it is precisely through the process of mutual criticism incorporated into the institution of science that the individual short-comings of its members are largely cancelled out.

Bunge (1996) gives the example of the Piltdown man that was “discovered” by two pranksters in 1912, authenticated by many experts, and unmasked as a fake in 1950. According to the existence criterion of social constructivists, we should admit that the Piltdown man did exist – at least between 1912 and 1950 – just because the scientific community believed in it.

And here, perhaps, is the heart of the confusion for all those who take a radically relativist position, whether they be proponents of the Strong Programme in the sociology of knowledge, socioculturalists, social constructivists, or postmodernists: the deliberate confusion of two separate issues:

1. claims about the existence or non-existence of particular things, facts and events,


2. claims about how one arrives at beliefs and opinions.

Whether or not the Piltdown man is a million years old is a question of fact. What the scientific community thought about the skull it examined in 1912 is also a question of fact. When we ask what led that community to believe in the hoax, we are looking for an explanation of a social phenomenon, and that is a separate issue. Just because for forty years the Piltdown man was supposed to be a million years old does not make him so, however interesting the fact that so many people believed it might be”.

Here’s Kevin Gregg (replying to Watson Gegeo) on cognitive science. I’ve really taken liberties with his reply, and tried only to give a view I agree with. My apologies to Kevin.

The vast majority of cognitive scientists, believe in the real, non-metaphorical existence of mental states such as beliefs and desires, and of mental events such as inference, decision, and computation. The majority of cognitive scientists, that is, endorse functionalism, which claims, in essence, that:

● The mind is certain functions of a complex system, the brain.

● Each and every particular mental state or event is some state or event of such a system.

● We have to use the language and explanatory style of psychological explanation to capture and explain mental states and events.

Cognitive scientists abstract away from the flesh-and- blood biology of the brain in order to better examine specific mental functions the brain carries out, such as inferencing, categorizing, or language processing. There are a number of compelling justifications for this kind of abstraction, including:

● that we know next to nothing about how the brain actually works to perform such functions; and

● that we can, and in the best cases even do, produce good explanations at the level of the mental that we do not, and perhaps even cannot, attain at the level of the neuronal.

Cognitive science has a number of characteristics, four of which are worth noting.

a. Cognitive science is modularist:

The goal of cognitive science is, to use the term common in the philosophy of mind, to ‘naturalize the mind’: to treat the mind, or such parts of it as are amenable to such treatment, as the object of empirical scientific inquiry. One consequence of such a stance, though, is that the cognitive scientist, like any other scientist, seeks to ‘carve nature at its joints’, to categorize the domain, to the extent feasible, in terms of natural categories. Further, those categories are defined, not in commonsense everyday terms, but by the theory as it is developed. All this is to say that ‘mind’ for a cognitive scientist may turn out to exclude, say, the passions, just as ‘language’ for the linguist may turn out to exclude implicature or turn-taking. And conversely, cognitive science may turn out to find the distinction between conscious and unconscious of no interest when dealing with beliefs, just as linguistic theory may find the distinction between signed and oral languages, or written and spoken languages, of little interest.

b. Cognitive science is individualist:

It locates cognition within the individual mind. Accordingly, linguistic theory locates linguistic competence within the individual mind (in Chomsky’s terms, linguistic theory is concerned with I-language not E-language). This certainly does not mean that one cannot abstract away from the individual to study larger units like families or cultures, just as one can abstract away from individual linguistic competence to study E-languages (English, Swahili, whatever) or the language practices of groups, as in sociolinguistics. The cognitive scientist, however, takes as a working assumption that the appropriate level of abstraction for analysis of cog- nitive capacities is the individual mind. This assumption follows equally from the functionalist perspective taken by most cognitive scientists and from the minority eliminativist position; in either case, cognitive capacities are embodied in an individual brain. With different species, for example the social insects, one might prefer a different perspective; but there seem to be good reasons for thinking that the individual human’s mind/brain is the appropriate place to look for causal processes to explain individual cognitive capacities.

c. Cognitive science is universalist:

This follows from the naturalistic stance: In looking for natural categories, one tries to set aside individual differences that might accidentally differentiate members of the same category. Thus biologists ignore commonsense markers of ‘race’, such as skin color or hair type, and work on the (empirically correct) assumption that humans constitute a single species. This position does not, of course, preclude subcategories of possible interest; there may, for example, be cognitive differences between the two sexes. But then sex defines a pair of natural categories; there is less likelihood of discovering scientifically interesting cognitive differences between, say, Greeks and Norwegians, or between socialists and conservatives. And of course modern linguistic theories abstract away from surface differences between languages to concentrate on the universal principles underlying all human language, while recognizing, and trying to find principled accounts for, differences across languages.

d Cognitive science is nativist:

This, too, follows from the commitment to naturalizing the mind: If our cognitive capacities are instantiated in the brain, then they are ultimately part of our biological make-up, and that make-up is largely a function of our genetic characteristics. Of course, these characteristics are expressed as a result of interaction with the environment, and when it comes down to cases the role of the environment may well be decisive. This in no way weakens the essentially nativist commitment of cognitive science, although it certainly does make the job of teasing apart genetic and environmental contributions to cognition a good deal harder.

Constructivism has to show how the environment is rich enough to produce cognitive effects about the existence of which there is little or no disagreement. The constructionists have yet to turn up any evidence whatever to show how knowledge could be socially constructed, and have yet to offer a coherent refutation of the idea that there is objective knowledge.

Gregg, K.R. (2006) Taking a social turn for the worse: The language socialization paradigm for second language acquisition. Second Language Research, 22: 413-432.

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