3.3 Models and Targets

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We have seen throughout this course that from a monolithic perspective, there is only one English for speakers of other languages to learn and it is supplied in full by external authorities, including textbooks, teachers, and tests. English conceived this way is a complex series of facts modelled by a pedagogical authority which must be replicated internally by the learner (just like a painter might try to faithfully render a model: Fig. 3.17). Or it is a target towards which the learner moves (like a distant peak: Fig. 3.18). In these ways of thinking, English is something external, that must be internalised or arrived at, rather than something that is constructed internally and automatised for use.


External model or target image
Figure 3.17: English can be conceived as an external model to be replicated

[Source: Mike Baird



External model or target image
Figure 3.18: English can be conceived as a target to be reached

[Source: WikiMedia Commons]



This way of thinking about English follows from folk theories of language and has dominated approaches to teaching for centuries. But it’s at odds with the plurilithic realities of language and learning that we’ve introduced and asked you to reflect upon in the course so far.

In a blog post on language teachers’ folk beliefs, the Arabic and SLA scholar Emma Trentman comments on the perceived need for more explicit grammar teaching when students repeat non-target forms:

I think this comes down to a belief that learning how to describe a grammatical feature should be sufficient for using it in the future. However, describing grammatical features, by for example filling out a chart of verb conjugations, is really more of a skill relevant to linguistics than actually using these features to do things with language, especially when it happens quickly.

Her reasoning is based on the same point we made about Barbara’s knowledge of grammar: when using a language, either acquired in infancy or learned at school, it’s not textbook rules that are being deployed.

In Depth

Some of the fundamental assumptions of a lot of research work on SLA are also problematic from a plurilithic perspective. You may have read about interlanguage and fossilisation for example (e.g. Selinker (1972); Selinker and Rutherford (2013)).

    Interlanguage is the name Larry Selinker gave to the language system that a learner has constructed at any given point in the learning process. The interlanguage systems that learners construct are composed of elements from their native language (through transfer) and the ‘target language’ (through teaching), as well as elements from neither (e.g. overgeneralisations, other creative constructions, and features from the unique discourse events that learners participate in).

    Fossilisation refers to the process (and resulting state) in which ‘non-target’ elements of an interlanguage become fixed and unchangeable—this is understood as the point at which the learner stops learning, with their rules and/or usage not in full compliance with the ENL model they have been taught. In effect, this concept corresponds to learners’ inability to replace their learner rules, the ‘regularities’ constructed and automatised on the basis of usage and transfer from L1, with the target rules deliberately learned as ‘regulations’ in declarative memory (as explained in the video clip in Fig. 3.22).

So, for example, Gass and Selinker (2008) state:

    In SLA, one often notes that interlanguage plateaus are far from the T[arget] L[anguage] norms. Furthermore, it appears to be the case that fossilized or stabilized interlanguages exist no matter what learners do in terms of further exposure to the TL. (p. 14)

The reference to ‘plateaus … far from TL norms’ is suggestive of the mountainous landscape in Fig. 3.17, where the mountain summit represents monolithic English … and the learner gets stuck miles away, with little chance of making it to the top. The inter- in interlanguage suggests a state of being ‘between’ no knowledge and ‘complete’ knowledge of L2, and the fossilisation notion suggests that this ‘inbetweenness’ is likely to be permanent. In other words, these concepts represent a view of learning characterised by failure: the gap between their system and the ‘target’ or the inaccuracy of their reproduction of the ‘model’. According to this deficit view of learning, learners can never, or only very rarely, achieve a successful learning outcome.

Furthermore, the individual learner’s understanding of the ‘target grammar’ they must reach, or the ‘model forms’ they must reproduce, is necessarily different from their teacher’s (or linguists’) understanding. This is because English teachers and linguists normally have some kind of representation of ‘Standard English’ (to a greater or lesser extent) in declarative memory, as both ‘object language’ and ‘language subject’. Learners obviously don’t have this knowledge (that’s why they are learners!), yet the visual metaphors of models and targets suggest that they have a clear (if distant) view of ‘Standard English’ (the woman with the parasol or the snowy peak).

What’s actually out there, the ‘model’ of English that most learners are exposed to, is not, of course, monolithic ‘Standard English’, there for all to see. Instead, it is: (a) regulatory ‘rules’ and other ‘facts’ about English; and (b), in much greater abundance, usage: streams of speech and bodies of text which are variable, incomplete, and context-dependent.

Discussion point 3.1

Post here a list of the different places or contexts (beyond teachers, textbooks, and tests) in which you think your students actually experience English (or you did when you were learning). What kinds of English are they? To what extent do these contexts correspond to the contexts in which learners might be using English in the future?


Few learners these days only experience English from textbooks, teachers, and tests using 'Standard English'. They also get non-native and 'non-standard' Englishes from peers and teachers in their classrooms (during group work and role-play, for example). They get different kinds of Englishes on the TV and at the movies, on the Internet, in popular music, out on the streets, while travelling, in advertising, on products they buy, etc., etc. … And they experience it also in their own heads, as they rehearse utterances, remember words or phrases, play with the sounds of the language, and invent their own words or constructions.

Even in textbooks and tests, learners experience a variety of different genres and styles of English which present different kinds of lexical and grammatical choices. So the external models don’t usually present evidence of one monolithic system, but of various plurilithic Englishes, on the basis of which learners must construct their own mental grammars and lexicons.