The Cognitive Approach

Historical Background

In the late 1950s and early 1960s the fields of psychology and linguistics were experiencing a sort of upheaval. Behaviorism, which had dominated psychology for several decades, was called into question by cognitive psychologists, who asserted that stimulus-response conditioning could not account for all the complexities of human learning. With respect to language learning, a young linguist named Noam Chomsky questioned B. F. Skinner's assumption that language use was also purely a conditioned behavior. In 1959 Chomsky wrote a critical review of B. F. Skinner's book Verbal Behavior (1957), in which he pointed out that humans are constantly producing and understanding new utterances, a process that cannot be explained by behavioristic theories.

These developments in psychology and linguistics eventually filtered into foreign language classrooms. During much of the 1950s and 60s the Audiolingual Method, which was based on behaviorist psychology and structural linguistics, had dominated American classrooms. As these theories were called into question, the Audiolingual Method lost credibility as well. In addition to violating the new theories of learning, the ALM's focus on memorization and drills left little opportunity for students to use language creatively, and therefore did not foster the ability to communicate in spontaneous situations. In addition, some students and teachers expressed frustration with the lack of implicit grammar explanation and the lock-step pace of the class, which allowed for little variation in learning styles or speeds.

By 1970 the behavioristic assumptions of the ALM had been largely replaced, at least in principle, with a "cognitive code approach" to language learning. Rivers (1981) affirms that the cognitive code approach "was much discussed but ill defined and consequently never gained the status of what one might call a method" (p. 49). Nevertheless, cognitive principles began to play a significant role in foreign language classrooms and continue to do so.

Theory of Language Learning

Chomsky and other linguists developed a theory of language known as transformational-generative grammar. Chomsky (1965) theorized that the human brain is programmed with a "language acquisition device"(LAD) that enables children to acquire languages naturally. According to this theory, the LAD allows human beings to internalize a complex system of rules that can generate all possible sentences in their language.

A transformational-generative view of language ties in closely with principles of cognitive psychology. Both theories emphasize the ways in which learners' minds process information (unlike behaviorism, which stresses the role of external conditioning agents rather than of the learners themselves). Among the cognitive principles that have implications for language learning are the distinction between automatic and controlled processing, the distinction between meaningful and rote learning, and the process of restructuring. Each of these is briefly explained below.

Shiffrin and Schneider (1977) assert that human beings have two distinct ways of processing information. Automatic processing involves the spontaneous activation of certain "nodes" in memory whenever certain inputs are present, thus freeing up the individual's cognitive resources to focus on other tasks. In contrast, controlled processing, the memory nodes are activated on a temporary basis only, requiring the individual's conscious attention. Shiffrin and Schneider claim that it is only through the repeated use of controlled processes that a skill becomes automatic. McLaughlin (1987) cites evidence that skilled language users use automatic processes to recognize words, process sentences, and comprehend reading passages, whereas beginning learners use controlled processes that demand more of the learners' time and attention.

Another key concept of the cognitive approach is the distinction between meaningful learning and rote learning. According to Ausubel, Novak and Hansen (1978), meaningful learning is that which is relatable to concepts that are already established in learners' cognitive structure, permitting the formation of mental links between new ideas and existing ideas. Rote learning, on the other hand, consists of relatively isolated concepts that are learned verbatim and are not integrated into the cognitive structure. Ausubel et al. cite research demonstrating that meaningful learning takes place more rapidly than rote learning, is retained longer, and is more easily transferable to new situations. Language teachers have long known, for example, that vocabulary words that are learned in a familiar context are learned more easily and retained longer than lists of words learned through rote memorization.

In order for new concepts to be stored in the mind, learners must impose some type of organization on the new information. Often new concepts do not fit within learners' current conceptualization of the target language, forcing learners to revise their mental framework in order to accommodate the new information. This constant modification of organizational structures in the mind is called restructuring. Restructuring helps to explain why learners often appear to forget grammar principles that they previously seemed to have mastered; this "forgetting" or "backsliding" occurs when learners encounter new forms that cause a restructuring of the whole system (Lightbown, 1985). In the long term, restructuring is seen as the process by which learners' interlanguage develops and grows closer to the target language.

Classroom Activities

Although the cognitive approach is not a method in the sense of a "specific instructional design or system" (Richards & Rodgers, 2001, p. 245), cognitive theory does suggest certain learning activities and principles. Many of these activities have been commonly used in foreign language classrooms and textbooks since the 1970s. Among them are the following:

Notes on the Video

The lesson in the video shows a third-year Portuguese class taught by Dr. Blair Bateman of Brigham Young University. The lesson takes an inductive approach to teaching a grammar concept (the use of articles with place names) by presenting examples and leading students to induce the rule and then asking them to explain it in their own words. The explanation phase is followed by practice activities in pairs to help students develop automaticity in using the rule.

References and Additional Resources

Ausubel, D. P., Novak, J. D., & Hanesian, H. (1978). Educational psychology: A cognitive view (2nd ed.). New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Carroll, J. B. (1971). Current issues in psycholinguistics and second language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 5, 101-114.

Chastain, K. (1971). The development of modern-language skills: theory to practice. Philadelphia: Center for Curriculum Development.

Chomsky, N. (1959). A review of B. F. Skinner's Verbal Behavior. Language, 35, 26-58.

Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Hadley, A. O. (2001). Teaching language in context (3rd ed.). Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Lightbown, P. M. (1985). Great expectations: Second-language acquisition research and classroom teaching. Applied Linguistics, 6, 153-189.

McLaughlin, B. (1987). Theories of second-language learning. London: Edward Arnold.

Oxford, R. L. (1990). Language learning strategies: What every teacher should know. Boston: Heinle & Heinle.

Richards, J. C., & Rodgers, T. S. (2001). Approaches and methods in language teaching (2nd ed.). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rivers, W. M. (1981). Teaching foreign-language skills. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shiffrin, R. M., & Schneider, W. (1977). Controlled and automatic human information processing: II. Perceptual learning, automatic attending, and a general theory. Psychological Review, 84, 127-190.

Skinner, B. F. (1957). Verbal behavior. New York: Appleton Century Crofts.