Cybernetics is the study of systems be they biological, computerised, or social. In 1956 the Scottish cyberneticist, Ross Ashby who was very much the father of the field, coined the Law of Requisite Variety which states that
Only variety absorbs variety.
This may sound a bit confusing but if we look at nature as a system of living things interacting with each other, the organism which is most able to adapt – to vary its behaviour – is the organism which is most likely to control that system. In such systems, over-specialisation in the bigger scheme of things is detrimental because when a big change suddenly occurs, the company or person or culture which is least able to vary its behaviour is usually the one which will become irrelevant. Likewise in work and life, the person with the most choices available to them is the person most likely to succeed in any given situation.
Lack of requisite variety is why ancient civilisations died away. A culture becomes so powerful and stable that it cannot recognise, never mind embrace, the need for change. This in turn breeds traditionalist instincts, conservatism and restrictions of freedom. When the outside world changed in a big way, the glorious old civilisations were unable to move positively against the new order of things. One thing we can learn from history is that the more open a culture is to change, the more chance it has of surviving. This truth can be applied to many aspects of society. When the government introduces regulations to curb derivatives trading in the City, bankers find a way around the laws to stay one step ahead of the authorities, who then have to respond with even tighter laws. This ongoing cycle of competition reflects itself in everything from traffic congestion to natural selection and political organisation.
So how does this affect ELT? Similarly, language is a socially
constructed system involving interaction with others and therefore it
is crucial that speakers have competencies and strategies to deal with
divergent issues when communicating. This is not some machiavellian
motive for language use but a basic requirement of surviving
linguistically and this is why I think think the achilles’ heel of
English for Specific Purposes is that it is always prone to become a
gimmicky extension of old notional-functional approaches to language
learning. There’s nothing wrong with a focus on Business English –
business by definition is a very generic word, but once you start
stepping over that line and building whole syllabuses around areas like
‘English for Cabin Crew’ or ‘English for Sports Coaches’ then I think
you are asking for trouble.
I think it’s more practical for teachers to encourage learners to be independent in pursuing specific avenues themselves, meanwhile providing a solid foundation in the general language during class time. Ultimately the issue is a freedom-versus-control one. Language is a big sprawling general beast which cannot be tamed by formulaic functional approaches. Language needs to be faced head on rather than via restrictive niches. As Wittgenstein vividly puts it,
“Do not be troubled by the fact that languages consist only of orders. If you want to say that this shows them to be incomplete, ask yourself whether our language is complete;---whether it was so before the symbolism of chemistry and the notation of the infinitesimal calculus were incorporated in it; for these are, so to speak, suburbs of our language. (And how many houses or streets does it take before a town begins to be a town?) Our language can be seen as an ancient city: a maze of little streets and squares, of old and new houses, and of houses with additions from various periods; and this surrounded by a multitude of new boroughs with straight regular streets and uniform houses.” ~ Philosophical Investigations (1953)
I think the analogy is particularly apt. If you want to orientate
someone with a city, would you send them down specific districts or
would you try to inculcate them with a wider view that stands them in
better stead over the long run? English for Specific Purposes makes a
lot of money for publishers but does it benefit learners beyond what
they should be learning anyway as a result of their own efforts? Should
a guide be holding a person’s hand and walking them around their own
neighbourhood when they can be an explorer opening them to lesser known
parts of the city while making themselves progressively unnecessary?
Isn’t a more important role in this context to be encouraging autonomy
and critical thinking skills rather than providing prescriptive phrases
and a lexicon of words that the learner should rightfully be familiar
If we read further into Investigations we can see that Wittgenstein extends this idea of a language as a place of dwelling.
“The language is meant to serve for communication between a builder A and an assistant B. A is building with building-stones: there are blocks, pillars, slabs and beams. B has to pass the stones, in the order in which A needs them. For this purpose they use a language consisting of the words “block”, “pillar” “slab”, “beam”. A calls them out; — B brings the stone which he has learnt to bring at such-and-such a call. Then the words ‘this’ and ‘there’ are introduced as well as the words ‘a’, ‘b’, ‘c’ and ‘d’ representing numbers so Builder A can now point and say “d – slab – there” whereby four slabs are counted out (“a, b, c, d…”) by builder B and placed in the desired spot.”
This activity is now recognisable as a language – a language for builders that can and must increase in complexity and size as the operations involved in building the structure increase from foundation and rudimentary functionality to perfection and an elaborate finish. However, the problem with such raw functionality is that if the house does not expand as needed, then along comes an unexpected wind and topples it over.
Which brings me to one of the flawed parts in my last lesson plan which I felt was the inclusion of a slide of functional phrases for debating. The problem with these is that when you introduce functional phrases in class almost nobody uses them unless explicitly drilled to do so. And when students do use them they always sound rather contrived. To me, including functional phrases is a bit of a pointless formality that people do because they feel they have to – it’s another remnant of a flawed approach that was once de rigeur.
I believe that teachers are better off recognising the non-linear
and diverse nature of communication. A focus on functionality causes a
dearth of variety and like a crutch, it fosters an inability to think
and talk on your feet, in real-time, adapting to situations and
information as they arise. Teachers should give people a solid
comprehensive grounding in the language – from the bottom up so that no
matter what the real world throws at them they can cope. The failure of
notional-functional and specialised approaches is the very thing they
were devised to prevent; they are often not so useful. They lack
breadth and meaning and therefore they lack value for the learner.