The current knowledge of language development includes a large amount of theory, research, and debate from a variety of fields. These include linguistics, psychology, philosophy, sociology, medicine, computers, biology, neurology, speech and language pathology, and education. What is known about language has come far in recent decades due to a recent flurry of activity in these disciplines, and as a result of the interdisciplinary sharing of information between the groups. Still, there are many questions. The nature-nurture debate rages, as do arguments regarding the pros and cons of specific theories of language acquisition. The search for autism’s elusive cure has gained unprecedented heights of popularity. And, how has language evolved? Or has it? To what extent, if any, does language precede thought? These and similar quests have sparked considerable debate but little consensus. And one large question still looms: Is it possible to devise a systematic way to teach language?
Recent theorists and researchers have lined up to either support their favorite traditional theories or to develop unique descriptions of language that may provide insightful clues into answering some of the existing questions. Theory of mind’s relevance in recent explanations of autism is one such example (Baron-Cohen, Leslie, and Frith, 1985). The number of other language theories is extensive. An incomplete list of these theories range from behaviorism, Chomsky’s nativist theories (universal grammar, principles and parameters, minimalism, etc.), connectionism, optimality theory, Vygotsky’s social interactionism, Piaget’s cognitive constructivism, information processing theory, neural network models, interactionist approaches (such as Bruner’s LASS and Bates and MacWhinney’s functionalism), and models that stress pragmatics, such as speech acts theory and Grice’s conversational maxims. This list doesn’t even include more “philosophical” models (such as structuralism, semiotics, logical positivism, Frege’s direct reference theory, or Wittgenstein’s picture theory), waning models (such as case grammar, pivot grammar, and the semantic relations approach), or many of the more recent theories being promoted and debated in specific circles (including Ullman’s dual system’s model, Fodor’s language of thought, Tomasello’s usage based grammar, Jackendoff’s conceptual semantics, and Sperber and Wilson’s relevance theory).
Many drawbacks exist to the language teacher when attempting to use current research and theory in functional practice. An obvious drawback is that there are likely too many theories to choose from. Having a wide selection of options often obscures the availability of the best option (Schwartz, 2004). Also, because so much of the theories exist as explanations of hidden processes, they tend to be so general that teaching assumptions don’t apply across categories of language or from individual to individual. Connectionist ideas may inspire treatment relevant to semantics, such as graphs and webs. An instructor could teach implications and sarcasm as implied in pragmatic theories. Or one may use underpinnings from theory of mind explanations to inspire joint attention and reciprocal turn taking. While these explanations apply to specific parts of language, others don’t even apply to instruction at all. How would you teach optimality theory to a preschooler? And beyond futuristic gene manipulation, improving universal grammar is impossible. The time and resource limitations involved in using evidence based practice in language therapy have been eloquently discussed in Brackenberry, Burroughs, and Hewitt, 2008. Compounding difficulties greatly is the predominance of some theories (nativist) that work from the assumption that because grammar is analogous to an organ that grows, it can’t be taught (Chomsky, 1980).
That no one language acquisition theory has been settled upon indicates that no one method of language teaching can currently be deemed the best.