Language Learning is not an Automatic Behavior

投稿日 2013年2月28日

While working on I.A.Richards: Collected Works 1919-1938, John Constable of Magdalene College, Cambridge, came across Richards’ writing on Basic English in three pages of letter paper, which is printed in Basic English Society’s Year Book of 2000. Probably the writing was done in 1931, and Richards might have had the idea of it being printed in The Japan Advertiser, an English language newspaper. His argument is so interesting to me that I put into Basic the starting part of his discussion:


Essentially, Basic English is an attempt to substitute insight for habit as a working principle in language. What this means in practive any adult who is trying to learn a foreign language can easily realise. Children, as we all know, pick up languages with a very mysterious ease. How they do it no psychologist will venture, as yet, to explain. Language learning is, perhaps, the only thing which children do much better than adults, and their superior ability here has something to do with the readiness with which they adopt new habits. On the other hand the adult–unless his education has gone very wrong–is incomparably more intelligent than the child. He has much greater insight, much more ability to understand how things work and to use his understanding consciously. The idea behind Basic English is, simply, this. Is it not possible to devise a language which can be learnt and used by the light of this superior insight and reasonable, directed, ingenuituy?

Prodigious feats of memorisation are performed and a prolonged drill is required to stamp in new language habits. Why not try instead a lanuage-appratus which reduces to a minimum the quantity of material to be memorised, and gives as much scope as possible to insight or intelligence rather than to habit-formation?


The most important point about Basic English is that it is an attempt to let reasoning take the place of automatic behavior. It seems that young boys and girls “pick up” and get used to languages without any pain or trouble. How it is done is not yet clear even to experts in psychology today. On the other hand, things in other fields are done much better by men and women of full growth with the power of their reasoning. The idea at the back of Basic English is this. Is it not possible to make a language learned and used by the light of this reasoning power?

All of the languages used today have to be learned half automatically through hard work full of pain. Memory has to do a surprisingly great amount of work, and a long training is necessary for the new language forms to be stamped upon the learner’s nervous system. Why don’t we make an attempt at a language apparatus which makes least weight on memory, and gives as much range as possbile to reasoning and brain-work than to making new automatic behaviors, or “habit-formation” which most schools of language teaching have strong belief in?


A development out of this idea was English Through Pictures (1945) and the Graded Direct Method of second language teaching worked out by I.A. Richards and Christine Gibson at Language Research, Harvard University. Yuzuru’s Japanese language teaching material is based on the same idea.

In a Graded Direct Method schoolroom, learners have to “inhibit” or to have control over their impulse for talking in their mother tongue, but are guided to make observation of what is going on. To see this process clearer and in more detail, we will be helped by F.M. Alexander’s discoveries about the use of ourselves. In place of our natural impulse, our reasoning power is to be used “in order

  1. to analyse the condition of the use present;
  2. to select (reason out) the means whereby a more satisfactory use could be brought about.”

The point of the argument may not be clear even in Alexander’s own words until one has the experience of the Alexander work with a trained teacher. In place of acting on impulse, it is better to be waiting without doing anything. This process, which will not take long but a second or two, will give birth to a new and better way of acting. Then your act is not an unconscious, automatic reaction to the new condition, but you make a conscious selection out of all the possible answers. Alexander made such a detailed observation of the process of getting to the desired end.,

In the earlier stage of learning a new language, the number of ways by which one gets the desired outcome is more or less limited, and the learner does not have to take so much time in decision making. The range of selection may be narrow, but the learner makes a conscious decision, not an automatic reaction. You will see examples among babies of conscious process in the act of language: they are testing the effect of what they say to other persons. This is opposite to the idea of “habit-making” school of language teaching.