by David Perrodin
The symbolism used by the Greek philosopher Plato to describe our illusions of the world in “The Allegory of the Cave” focus on the fact that the influence of knowledge gained through education has profound implications on our mindset, our ideology, and, as a result, our future.
Imprisonment in the Cave
The implications of the allegory can be interrupted in many forms. Throughout the course of the dialogue between Socrates and his mentee Glaucon, Plato’s brother, it is revealed that a lack of insight into one’s own impediments of thinking, in essence, holds them prisoner. Let’s take a look at how the philosophies mentioned in this story can be ascribed to the teaching and learning of English as a Second or Foreign Language (ESL/EFL).
We know through ongoing analysis into second language acquisition (SLA), the process by which individuals acquire a second language, that languages are not exclusively taught by an instructor; they are equally learned or acquired by the learner. Given that English remains the lingua franca or global language, and therefore, the language of the global economy, it is fitting that English language communication skills continue to be in high demand throughout the world. Although both educators and learners recognize the need for greater English proficiency, at times learning how to best communicate using English is not a priority with many of these educators or many of the learners.
Departure from the Cave
Current research of second language acquisition indicates that language pedagogy, the method and practice of teaching a language, has significantly advanced since the development of the present study of SLA in the early 1970’s. Stephen Krashen, one of the godfathers of our modern second language acquisition theories, along with Tracy Terrell, in the early 1980’s stated that language acquisition does not require extensive instruction of grammatical rules nor does it require tedious exercises. Everyone knows that the structural rules of grammar that govern a language are important, but there is a much bigger picture when learning to use a language. Relax… No one is saying that we totally dispense with grammar instruction. What is being said, is that as with any part of a language, grammar must be taught and learned within the context of the language.
Even as early as 1693, the English philosopher John Locke stated that the primary purpose of language is communication. He was adamant that language should be learned naturally. Then in 1875, the great French teacher of modern languages Lambert Sauveur concurred that language is acquired through conversation and by the asking of analytical questions. So now countless language programs across the globe tend to focus more on task-based approaches that emphasize communication and the practical uses of the target language.
Nowadays language is no longer viewed as simply being a subject learned through repetitive mechanical exercises, but a tool that is developed through the use of interacting and engaging practice. Stephen Krashen, in tandem with the opinions of Locke and Sauveur, further stated that language acquisition requires meaningful interaction via the use of natural communication in the target language where the speakers are mainly concerned with the messages they are conveying and understanding, and not so much with the grammatical form of their sentences.
As a result, the goal of many language educators is to aid in producing fluent language users. Modern language acquisition pedagogy emphasizes the use of natural conversation in real-life situations, which tends to make the learner more aware of the appropriate use of the target language.
Return to the Cave
Most native English speaker ESL/EFL educators know that real world conversations, with considerate native English speakers, tend to be more beneficial for a language learner rather than a threatening experience. Frequently, language learners are in a state of distress when they feel that they do not have any way to practice the target language, or any more patience with the current way of learning. When they reach this point they tend to just shut down.
The great Stephen Krashen said that the best methods of learning a target language are those with messages that supply comprehensible input by the way of situations using real-life dialog that the learners feel, without apprehension, that they need to learn. He continued that these methods of acquiring a language in the natural order of learning (listening, speaking, reading and then writing) do not force the learners to produce any language before they are ready.
It would seem that ESL/EFL educators have an important duty to help language learners to become more globally competitive language users. So it would seem harsh to use intimidation of failing grades or some other form of punishment to force a learner to use a language they are neither interested in nor motivated to learn. Learners often tend to feel distressed, and sometimes angered at the thought of being forced to learn another language. Therefore, encouraging a learner to escape the obstacles of their negative thinking associated with learning English becomes one of the primary duties of the educator.
Would you like to teach English without teaching English?
I know you enjoy watching videos as much as I do, so here is a treat for you. Professor Roberto Guzman with the University of Puerto Rico spoke at a TEDx event about how to improve the learning experience for language learners and the teaching practice for university professors. Take a few minutes to view one of the most thought provoking videos I have seen about English teaching. Here is the link to Teaching English without Teaching English https://youtu.be/8pZa6R3rmRQ ENJOY!!!RESOURCES
- Axtelli, J. L. (1968). The educational writings of John Locke: A critical edition with introduction and notes. London: Cambridge University Press.
- EF EPI 2018 – Asia. (2018). Retrieved from
- Krashen, S. D. (1987). Principles and Practice in Second Language Acquisition. Prentice-Hall International.
- Krashen, S. D. (1988). Second Language Acquisition and Second Language Learning. Prentice-Hall International.
- Krashen, S., & Terrell, T. (1983). The Natural Approach Language Acquisition in the Classroom. Oxford Pergamon Press.
- Paling, R. (2017). Neurolanguage coaching: Brain friendly language learning. Gloucester: The Choir Press.
- Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – Alex Gendler. (2017). Retrieved from https://ed.ted.com/lessons/plato-s-allegory-of-the-cave-alex-gendler
- Sauveur, L. (1875). Introduction to the teaching of living languages without grammar or dictionary. Boston: Schœnhof & Mœller.
- Teaching English without Teaching English [Video file]. (2016, May 26). Retrieved from https://youtu.be/8pZa6R3rmRQ
Image used under Creative Commons CC0 1.0. Retrieved from https://pixabay.com/en/joseph-wright-art-artistic-painting-83428/