A Barrier to Entry in TESOL

March 2012

Ivory Tower
Ivory Tower

One thing that puzzles me is the widespread practice of people writing their findings in extremely complex prose. Why can’t academics be clearer? They contrive to make the study of language learning as dull as accounting and as opaque as molecular biology.

Take this example:

“Unquestionably, the study of various representational and acquisitional facts that might fall under the umbrella of fossilization has advanced our knowledge of L2A. But among researchers there is disagreement at the most basic level, for example, on whether fossilization is an explanans or anexplanandum, whether it is a process or a product, whether its domain extends to L1A, and whether it refers to invariant non-native forms or variable non-native forms (Han, 1998). Fossilization appears to be a protean, catch-all term that fails to capture a unitary or even coherent construct. This being the case, one must recognize the limitations of attempts to characterize the nature of fossilization. For the sake of descriptive and explanatory precision, it may be more reasonable to investigate discrete products, processes, behaviors, and epistemological states of L2A. Imagine, for example, that a given learner at presumed L2A asymptote exemplifies Behavior A (e.g., use of the imperfective to encode progressive past aspect) and Behavior B (e.g., use of the imperfective in telic contexts); Behavior A is native-like and Behavior B is non-native-like. Imagine further that Behavior A appears to be unsystematic, perhaps reflecting a probabilistic grammar, while Behavior B is invariant, suggesting a stable divergent grammar. The unique character of each behavior makes each worthy of investigation in its own right. Trying to decide whether one or both behaviors qualify as “fossilization” is unnecessary. Moreover, such labeling would not meaningfully illuminate matters, and would be likely to provoke unhelpful disputes over “questions of semantics.” It is self-defeating to be so bound to a term – which to date has defied attempts at meaningful characterization – that fundamental descriptive and explanatory goals become obscured.”

David Birdsong, The Handbook of Applied Linguistics, page 87

Now why couldn’t he have written it like this?

Our understanding of second language acquisition has been advanced by the study of fossilization. But there is still some fundamental disagreement among researchers as to whether fossilization is a cause or a result of acquisition, in how much it is related to first language acquisition and its consistency across non-native speech.

Fossilization is a protean, catch-all term that fails to define a singular and coherent idea. Therefore it seems more reasonable to discuss the phenomenon in terms of discrete products, processes, behaviours and levels of second language acquisition.

You get my point. There’s a lot of redundancy and for the sake of expediency and clarity I think it’s usually worth whatever peripheral sacrifices may be incurred.

Forbidden City
Economic moat. Academic language often has results in gatekeeping rather than enlightening.

There is a line between making something clear and oversimplifying & talking down to people. But the practice of going completely in the other direction is patently more unfair on your reader. I would always prefer to take the risk of stating the obvious than writing something which is at first sight incomprehensible, even to well-informed people. The real issue here is that most of the world’s ESL teachers are non-native speakers thus the custom for couching ideas in convoluted language is in practice extremely prohibitive.

“There are horrible people who, instead of solving a problem, tangle it up and make it harder to solve for anyone who wants to deal with it. Whoever does not know how to hit the nail on the head should be asked not to hit it at all.” ~ Nietzsche