Consciousness and Second Language Learning by John Truscott is the latest book in our Second Language Acquisition series. In this post, John explains how he became interested in the subject and how the book came together.
The book is, first of all, an expression of what has always been my number one intellectual interest: trying to understand the human mind. I’ve spent a few decades now wandering through the fields of psychology, philosophy, cognitive science, linguistics, and second language acquisition, always returning to that main interest. Almost 15 years ago, this interest found a home when Mike Sharwood Smith and I began our MOGUL project. The focus of the project is on establishing a framework within which second language learning can be understood and explored. But given the relations between this area and various other fields, constructing a framework of this sort necessarily means going far beyond second language learning itself. The project becomes, in effect, an effort to understand the mind.
One important strength of the MOGUL framework is its parsimonious account of consciousness, which straightforwardly incorporates the major themes of cognitive and neural theories and explains central features of consciousness in perhaps the simplest way imaginable. These characteristics give it great potential value for the study of second language learning. My goal in the book, a narrowing of the general goal of understanding the human mind, was to present the account of consciousness and explore this potential value.
In the first chapter I describe two views of consciousness and human nature, criticizing both. The first sees us as conscious creatures, downplaying or dismissing unconscious knowledge and processes, while the other sees an unconscious self as more important and perhaps more real than the conscious self that we know. The second view has sometimes enjoyed a faddish sort of popularity, but the first is much closer to common thinking. Even those who maintain an intellectual belief in View 2, I suggest, have great trouble actually following through with the idea. The tendency to equate “me” with what I consciously experience can be overwhelming.
This tendency shows in beliefs about second language teaching and learning. Research cannot begin to justify or explain the widespread faith shown by teachers, learners, and academics in the importance of explicit (conscious) learning. What might explain it, without justifying it, is the underlying assumption about human nature: that conscious knowledge and conscious processes represent our essence. This assumption is, depending on the exact form it takes, either confused or simply false. Conscious processes are important in many ways, and I’ve tried to elucidate some of them. But it is a mistake to assume that what we consciously know and do has more than a very indirect relation to second language learning.
Thus, in writing the book I was interested in (a) deepening our understanding of the mind and specifically of how consciousness fits into it, (b) exploring the implications for second language learning, and (c) challenging assumptions that implicitly dominate this area. I hope the book will at least inspire a recognition that more serious consideration of these topics is needed.