Shona Whyte wrote to me the other day asking if I had a copy of Kevin Gregg’s paper “The Variable Competence Model of Second Language Acquisition, and Why It Isn’t “. I sent it to her and she replied thanking me and added “It is the elegant demolition job with the beautiful turn of phrase we are used to from Gregg”. Amen to that.
IMHO, Kevin Gregg is the most aticulate, scholarly critic of matters related to SLA alive today. He’s my hero, my guiding light. Just before we get to the serious bit, I should add that Kevin has immaculate taste. Probably he has immaculate taste in all realms, but I’m talking about one realm where I have a bit of knowledge and a lot of experience: drink. Not only can Kevin tell if the scotch he’s drinking is a genuine Bowmore 25 year old, he can find a decent Ribera del Duero on a restauant menu for less than €30, he can make a mean cocktail and he can drink most people under the table.
Where were we? Kevin is an enormous resource. Any time I need help with things related to SLA, I ask Kevin, who, being the generous man he is, never takes long to send a reply. I’m not alone in asking Kevin for help: you’ll see his name in the acknowledgements bit of a lot of the best published work on SLA. He’s always asked to contribute to the Handbook of SLA every time they do a new one. In short: he’s the man. Nobody in the field of SLA comes even close to Kevin when it comes to beautiful writing, and nobody comes close to him when it comes to critical acumen. He’s frighteningly well-informed: Chomsky; scientific method; rational argument; theories of SLA. And he’s truly frightening if you talk bullshit; quite simply, as Shona suggests, he’ll demolish you.
Gregg’s paper on Krashen (1984) is a masterful critique, never bettered. His “demolition job” of the Variable Competence Model (1990) nailed it in its coffin, and he did a similar job on Emergentism (2003). He’s done some devastating reviews of books, too. Here he is reviewing Saville-Troike’s 2004 Inroducing SLA. New York, CUP.
“Has this ever happened to you? Summer vacation has started, you’ve just settled in to your cabin on the lake, when suddenly you remember: You have a contract to write an introduction to SLA, and the manuscript is due next week. What do you do? Well, if you decide not to go back to the office and actually work, you might try to write down as many of the standard topics as come to mind—learning versus acquisition, performance versus competence, morpheme acquisition, processability, critical period, UG, connectionism, and so forth—and scribble a few anodyne lines about each, without actually providing any details about any. If you did that, you might wind up with something not too different from Saville-Troike’s truly embarrassing new book. …..
It would be unjustified praise to call this book superficial: If the discussion were any shallower, it would be convex. ………..
This is a slim volume, and yet it manages to pack into its small space as much tedium as can be found in a whole issue of the Federal Register while still leaving the uninformed reader as uninformed as before. I can think of no introductory textbook, in any field, that so thoroughly, scandalously, fails as this one does.”
That’s what I’d like to have said. And that’s the way I’d like to have said it.
I think there are two areas where Gregg really stands out: first his defence of Chomsky and his insistence that any theory of SLA needs a property theory; and second, his defence of critical rationalism against relativists.
As to his defence of Chomsky, he insists that Chomsky has provided the best theory of language we have, and I, for one, agree with him. The more contentious matter is his demand for a property theory of SLA, Chomsky being the best candidate (see, for example, Gregg 1996ª). I had a few attempts at challenging this, culminating in an article I wrote for the Forum in the Appled Linguistics journal (Jordan, 2004). Gregg’s reply (and I’m absolutely sure that he, as a friend, was kind on me) carefully took my argument apart and showed it up for the ill-considered argument it was. It’s a very important question which I’ve wrestled with for a long time. I’m about ready to concede that Gregg is right.
When the “Relativist Agenda” first came to prominance in the nineties, Kevin was the first to respond (see Gregg, 1993). Later, when things had hotted up, Mike Long asked me to join him, Alan Berretta and Kevin in writing a defence of rationalism. This was the first time I’d actually got to correspond with my hero and I have to say, it was pretty bruising. Mike, Alan and Kevin don’t mince words: they come down on you like a ton of bricks if you say anything loose or badly-expressed. I say this in part to explain myself, or rather, the way I write. I was brought up in the academic world of hard knocks. Starting with my encounters at the LSE with Popper, Lakatos, Feyerabend, Kuhn and others, where criticism was, I think, best described as brutal, I went on to enjoy the company of Mike Long and his chums, who were similarly demanding and didn’t pull punches. These were very bright, well-informed, inquisitive academics who insisted on rigour and took no prisoners. Anyway, I enjoyed the experience of working with my co-authors and the result was the Gregg et. al. 1997 article which stirred things up as we’d hoped it would. After that, we all published further attacks on the relativists, but none of us could match Kevin. Maybe his 2000 paper is the best example of his view, and I recommend it to all those starting a post grad. course.
My main reason for this brief post is, prompted by Shona, to recommend Gregg’s writing for its own sake. But I also want to say that Gregg shows the value of fierce criticism. While Gregg would never stoop to the cheap shots I’m guilty of, he would certainly approve of my, by his standards, clumsy attempts to highlight bullshit and to demand high; not in the almost mystical way that Adrian Underhill and Jim Srivener do, but rather in a way that subjects published work on matters of ELT to the highest rational scrutiny.