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Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 14. 1967.

Reading knowledge blasted

page 5

Reading knowledge blasted

Why has the reading knowledge requirement had defenders in the past? Mainly, I think, because there has been confusion between what can reasonably be maintained about (a) the complete mastery of a foreign language, and (b) the ability to understand the written forms of a foreign language. Hence all sorts of ideas have been produced to justify the requirement which in fact only have relevance to complete oral and written fluency in a foreign language. The case' for dropping the reading requirement is simply that none of the things which are claimed for it can be related to reading knowledge courses.

The usual arguments in favour of foreign language study are (I) the window on the world theory; (II) the suggestion that the study of a foreign language clarifies thought in or about the native language; (III) the argument that language learning assists intellectual development and helps to develop general qualities useful for study purposes; (IV) the invocation of ideas about language as a means of communication. It takes little effort to demonstrate that compulsory reading courses are quite unrelated to any of these claims.

Consider firstly. (I). The foreign language is supposed to increase the student's sensitivity to other ways of life and thought. Now, obviously, we can learn about other cultures without learning the language of these cultures. But it is argued that without language we never experience directly a different culture in terms of the spoken and written symbols with which it uniquely reveals itself This may be true, but it can only apply to a full foreign language. A reading knowledge cannot be expected to fulfil such a role. The written language is not the primary cultural manifestation of a civilisation. Language is a social activity taking place between people in living situat ions. Reading knowledge courses give no encouragement to thinking in the foreign language, which is surely the way a cultural sense is acquired.

The second claim, that the study of the foreign language clarifies thought in or about the native language, is again only applicable to full fluency in the foreign language, since the reading courses do not aim at producing thinking in the foreign language. The argument runs that a foreign language uses different concepts from the native language, and in moving to the thought system of the foreign language one may leave behind the concepts of the native language. In so doing. the concepts of the native language are said to become clearer. But recent investigation has not tended to support this claim. Study of foreign language students in Wales showed that they tended to keep the concepts of the mother tongue when using the foreign language. The old story about the glories of latin sometimes enter here, too. It is supposed to throw light on the structure of English. We are asked to believe that there is some alternative method of acquiring information about one's language other than by actually studying one's language!

The third suggestion is that through language study the student is gaining intellectual development and such useful study habits as discipline. Now there is some experimental evidence, based on investigation of bilingual children in Montreal, to suggest that experience with two language systems gives a superiority in concept formation and a more diversified set of mental abilities. But it is not known whether the more intelligent child becomes bilingual or whether bilingualism aids intellectual development. Nor is it known if proficiency in, say, mathematics or logic has a similar relation to intelligence (or vice versa). And obviously there is no basis for comparison between a child growing up in a bilingual community and a student in a reading knowledge course.

As regards discipline. C. J. Dudson may be quoted in full: " . . . some short-sighted 'educationists have in the past connected the [often] artificially created difficulties encountered in language learning . . . with the process of character training. Having taken [these difficulties] . . . for granted, the educationist eventually tends to consider them as self-evident, and then proceeds to combine them with educational virtues, such as perserverence, will-power and character. We are still bedevilled by the educationist who firmly balieves that the more difficult we make it for the learner, the better his education will be, It is high time that such old fashioned morality, which considers the presence of the obstacle to be more important than the attainment of the goal, is shown up for the miserable philosophy that it is. Any system which allows only the few to acquire true knowledge, very often in spite of the system, can no longer claim selfperpetuating power. The needs of the world are too great to accommodate the "holier than thou" attitudes of the few, whilst the majority of men ore clamouring for knowledge which lies outside their reach because we have made the obstacles too high and too frequent."

This discussion of the reading knowledge requirement will make the following points: 1, there is no good case for the compulsory reading knowledge requirement at Victoria; 2, the present reading knowledge courses serve no useful purpose; 3, there is a case for a non-compulsory reading course of a different type, says Jack Richards of the English Language Institute.

Fourthly (and as a last resort) some reference is made to the Communication value of language. This argument is only valid if some communication is demanded of the language, hence it has no relevance to reading knowledge courses. Language can only function as a system of communication if it is taught as a system of communication. Current reading knowledge courses concentrate on the translation of set texts. In so doing they of necessity divorce language from its social context. Just as it is pointless to talk about language study conveying knowledge of a foreign literature when the teaching makes it convey the non-literary aspects of the foreign civilisation, so it is nonsense to talk about language study developing communication if the teaching is directed towards developing reading.

Thus it is clear that the arguments generally produced in favour of the compulsory reading courses are quite irrelevant, arising as they do from wishful thinking about complete mastery of a foreign language. There is neither logic nor evidence to support the exaggerated claims that have been made for the compulsory reading courses. Yet even if the present courses were made optional they could serve little useful purpose. This is because they are not in fact reading courses, but, text study courses. We would expect genuine reading courses to fulfil two requirements. 1, to serve as the introduction to a foreign language which is not taught at school, such as Russian; and 2. to enable students to obtain information written in other languages. These are requirements for students with special Interests, such as those needing to read medieval texts, or Latin, or Indonesian modern history, and so on. so these courses would be optional.

It is unfortunate that defensive attempts to justify the present reading knowledge courses using arguments like those outlined above, have made the existing courses quite incapable of fulfilling the purpose of a genuine reading course. Anyone without previous knowledge of a foreign language, could confim that it is not possible to acquire a reading knowledge from the present courses. Why is this so?

To achieve a reading knowledge of a foreign language a vocabulary of about 4000 of the most" frequent words of the language is required. 8. This accounts for as much as 97 per cent of the total words encountered in average reading. If the course is a reading course, it should concentrate on teaching as much of this vocabulary as possible, together with a relevant syntax. Text study courses, such as we have at the moment, stand in the way of developing a reading knowledge, since the average text contains no ordered or controlled introduction to vocabulary, and frequently contains too much irregular language. An analysis of one text revealed that one sentence in five contained an irregularity of either vocabulary or sentence structure. This means that either the vocabulary is Infrequent, or the sentences irregular for stylistic reasons. Ordinary language contains too many irregularities and too high a Proportion of new words to repeated words to enable it to help establish vocabulary.

Text study courses can also have a harmful effect on the Speed with which one reads one's native language. It has been shown that reading ability is transferred from one language to another. 9 The present word study technique used in reading knowledge courses forces concentration on each successive word. The same technique transferred to English is characteristic of the slow reader, of which there are a considerable number among the student population judging by interest in faster reading courses. The university has experts in the teaching of reading foreign languages. A senior lecturer at the English Language Institute for instance, did a year's, full time research to determine the vocabulary needed to read university text books in English. It would be an appropriate time to drop the compulsory courses, and appoint a committee of such experts to advise on the design of optional reading courses for other languages.

One other point is perhaps worth making. There seems to be a belief in the minds of some faculty members, that a BA degree represents what a degree at an American liberal arts college represents. These colleges try to produce a special type of all round student and hence prescribs carefully the ingredients of a "liberal" education. Some of these colleges require a full foreign language. But in view of the general lack of prescription involved in a Wellington BA such an equation hardly seems valid. The only point at which any prescription is involved is with the reading knowledge requirement. when this special conception of the BA is suddenly argued for and a different type of thinking begins to operate which has never been evident at any other stage in the student's choice of subjects.

Perhaps we can hope for some clearer thinking on the subject of compulsory reading courses in the future. The results would be (a) the dropping of the compulsory reading knowledge requirement and (b) their replacement with optional reading courses for students who require them.


1.I have recently made a similar case in Comment (No. 32).
2.Dutton. B. Guide To Modern Language Teaching Methods (Cassel) ch 3.
3.Parker. W. "Why a Foreign Language Requirement?" College and University 1957.
4.Belyayev. B. The Psychology of Teaching Foreign Languages (Pergamon) ch 4.
5.Dodson. C. Language Teaching and the Bilingual Method (Pitman) ch 3.
6.Peal, E. and Lambert. W. "The Relation of Bilingualism to Intelligence" in Michel. Foreign Language Teaching (Macmillan).
7.Dodson, op.cit. p40-41.
8.Bongers. H. The History and Principles of Vocabulary Control (Woerden).
9.West. M. Learning to Read a Foreign Language (Longmans' ch 2.