Applied Biolinguistics

Applied Biolinguistics is a concept developed by Montserrat Sanz and Michael H. Labruyère. It is described in a manuscript, which will be available shortly.

Biolinguistics is a multidisciplinary scientific research project that seeks to unveil how much language structure responds to the needs of the systems in which it is embedded and with which it interacts: the cognitive-intentional and the sensory-motor systems. It assumes that language is an emergent property of the brain, and that minimalist linguistics holds the key to understanding how language works.

Biolinguistics also studies the ontogenesis of language: how it evolved in the human race and how it develops within an individual. It questions how much of language is universal and where variation can take place: what is the interaction between genetic endowment and environmental triggers? This is a crucial topic for L2 teaching. The key to understanding different overt ways of implementing grammar through sound-meaning units (words) lies in the features of the functional component of sentences: the systems of Aspect, Tense, Mood, etc., that can be represented in a syntactic tree and whose traits determine overt grammatical phenomena. In other words, from the point of view of minimalist linguistics, what is important in second language development is not only what we hear and see (words) but also the unseen (features).

We are interested in applying what is known about language and the mind within the biolinguistics project to helping the L2 teaching field to finally tease-out solid scientific foundations – rather than relying on its accrued historical tradition of truisms. We believe that the techniques currently employed to teach languages are not necessarily consistent with what is today known about the structure of human languages, the syntax/semantics interface, functional features and the progress being made by neuropsychology.  It is our conviction that biolinguistics holds the keys to the future of L2 teaching practice.

The focus of Biolinguistics is on understanding narrow syntax and its interactions with other cognitive and performance systems that lead to the acquisition of that abstract knowledge (I-language). The aim of language teaching from an Applied Biolinguistics perspective is to lead students from transmissions (language encoded in speech and text –words, visible morphemes) to I-language (abstract features that constitute the "recipes of language" in Mark Baker's words), in the most direct and straightforward fashion possible. This requires helping teachers towards a precise understanding of what narrow syntax consists of and providing close comparative analyses of the features of functional categories in the given L1 and L2. In other words, we believe that teachers would benefit from knowledge of the strength of features in the L2 that will allow their students to master the functional system of the target language. This could be applied in two ways: 1) by manipulating the linguistic environment to take into account what is known about functional and lexical features for implicit acquisition ; 2) by helping students to attain conscious knowledge of their implicit learning (cognizing) ; 3) by explicitly introducing students to theoretical topics where they are accessible in order to lead them beyond the visible aspects of language (words). (1) leads to implicit learning ; (2) involves exercises designed to help learners reflect on their linguistic competence; (3) is explicit learning not of traditional descriptive grammar, but of the relevant findings of biolinguistic investigations (from neuropsychology to minimalist findings).

Applied Biolinguistics is NOT a part of SLA research as commonly understood, although of course, in its effort to utilize scientific knowledge for the benefit of L2 learners, it takes into account SLA research results, as well as research findings in Psycholinguistics and related fields. It also distinguishes itself from Applied Linguistics within the Generative tradition as it is concerned with the concrete application of minimalist, biolinguistic perspectives : didactics based on science.

In the future, we would like to create an Applied Biolinguistics Centre for Language Education (ABC-LE) with the aim of channelling proposals directed to:

•   Evaluating published biolinguistic research with a view to potential language pedagogical applications

•   Evaluating traditional language methodology in light of biolinguistic research

•   Coordinating SLA research and second language teaching research findings for pedagogical applications

•   Providing ABC-LE recommendations for language teaching based on the science of biolinguistics and classroom research

•   Developing materials for teaching based on theoretical research on language (Biolinguistics) and which it is our hope may be subject to clinical trials (neuropsychology).

For the moment, this is not feasible given our current means, but it is something that we believe it is necessary. If you have any suggestions for research papers on any of the language sciences that you think could be applied to L2 teaching and you want to share them with us, please contact us. We will start by creating a data base of all that relevant research and apply biolinguistics to language teaching step by step.

Thank you.