1.2 My teaching philosophy

My teaching philosophy is firmly grounded in the traditions of student-centered learning and flipped classrooms on the one hand, and cognitive linguistics on the other hand. This philosophy has co-evolved with prevailing theoretical trends over the course of over 35 years of teaching at four different universities. Both student-centered learning and cognitive linguistics develop the capacity of the student to become an active lifelong learner. Ultimately I view teaching and research as two sides of my scientific career that feed each other in a continuous cycle. I develop the three themes of student-centered learning, cognitive linguistics, and the teaching/research cycle in more detail below.

At the beginning of my career, the theoretical models for teaching language ranged from boring to bizarre. Skinner’s (1957) behaviorist theory of language acquisition held that language was merely a verbal behavior that could be modified through repeated response to stimuli and reinforcement, similar to how Pavlov’s dogs learned to salivate when they heard bells. This behavioristic approach to language learning motivated the building of hundreds of audio-lingual language labs in the US, where students were treated like parrots, receiving repetitious recorded stimuli and responding through microphones. In 1963, Gattegno offered something that was nearly the opposite with “The Silent Way” for teaching foreign languages, using minimal input from the instructors, and colored wooden Cuisenaire rods to organize sounds and meanings. Asher (1969) went in another direction with “Total Physical Response”, an approach that called for students to physically act out all of the language they were learning in the classroom, making language learning something of an aerobic exercise. However, one had to wonder how they would act out their lessons on criminal terminology (rape, murder) or on counterfactuals (like “Where I would go if I could travel at the speed of light”). From the Bulgarian therapist Lozanov came “Suggestopedia” (1971) in which language students were to be put in relaxed states by playing baroque music, singing, and playing games. While none of these methods made sense to me as an exclusive approach, all of them had something to offer, and at the very least they made me think about what foreign language learning really involves.

What Skinnerian behaviorism and the other methods of the time didn’t leave space for is also something that I have struggled with throughout my career, namely what I call the “aha” moment, the experience students have when they first come to understand something. The “aha” moment is something tricky and elusive. Students can only get the “aha” moment via induction, when they have figured out how something works by themselves. The challenge is to give them just enough information to make the connection on their own, to nurture the moment, and then let the gears turn. When it works, it is like magic. There is no guaranteed way to deliver “aha” moments to students, but there are lots of guaranteed ways to deny them the “aha” moments. When we just serve up the facts, because we are in a hurry or haven’t found a way to strike the balance between just enough and too much, when we haven’t properly assessed exactly where students are so that we can gauge what they can do next, we are denying students the “aha” moment. I have been guilty on every count now and again.  And the saddest part is that once students have been fed all the answers, they can never find them on their own. I wish I could give all my students “aha” moments in every class. I certainly fail at this much of the time, but that is the goal. And I think that this goal is extra important for language teaching since language is not something that you just learn up to 100% at one go and are done with: in order to succeed as a second language user, you have to become an independent learner and be prepared to continue the learning process all  through your life.

Student-Centered Learning

As a graduate student at UCLA in the 1980s, I completed two advanced degrees concurrently: a PhD in Slavic Linguistics and a Certificate in Language Teaching Pedagogy  through the English Department (ESL). The purpose of the second degree was to gain full mastery of theoretical and practical pedagogical competence in second language teaching, since I was preparing myself for a career in the classroom. It might seem strange that a future teacher of Russian would take a series of pedagogical courses in teaching English, but there was no teacher-training in my PhD program, probably on the mistaken assumption that mastery of Russian linguistics was sufficient to make a person a good teacher. The excellence of the pedagogical preparation in the ESL department at UCLA was world famous. Taking that extra degree was my own initiative, and it paid off well since the theories and techniques of language teaching I learned in my pedagogy courses were fully applicable to teaching Slavic languages. I even set up an unofficial teacher-training group in my home department with fellow graduate students in which we read theoretical works and developed our techniques by videotaping the classes we taught as teaching assistants and critiquing each other’s videos. My pedagogical training sparked a lifelong love of teaching. As a result, my whole career has been devoted to language teaching and research that supports it.

It is my conviction that learning is a collaborative effort in which the students are active stakeholders rather than passive recipients. While on the one hand, I could say that I have followed the trends variously labelled as “student centered learning” or “learner-centered instruction” (see Hannafin & Land 1997, Huba & Freed 2000, Hannafin 2012 and citations therein) and “flipped classrooms” (see Strayer 2012 and citations therein) throughout my career, on the other hand, I could also say that these values were always with me, that they are foundational principles that I recognized and that confirmed my way of teaching.

Like all teachers, I started on the other side of the desk, as a student. And in 1977, as I began my third year studying Russian at Princeton University, I realized that something wasn’t quite right. I was a diligent student. I had mastered all of the basic grammar rules in my textbooks, as well as a significant portion of the vocabulary in my dictionary. I was doing well in my courses. But whenever I tried to read a novel or newspaper on my own, I came up against the same wall in nearly every sentence: I recognized all of the words, and I could parse out the entire sentence grammatically, but still I was lost, I had no idea what the whole sentence meant. There was a severe disconnect between what I had been taught and what I wanted to know, what I wanted to be able to do with the language. This experience has been the driving force of my entire career, which has been dedicated to filling the gap between rote learning and reality for students like me.

My teaching style consistently challenges students to go beyond the sterile confines of the textbook and the classroom, to probe the messiness of reality, and to come back to share insights with each other. I do this by giving students graduated access to authentic language material in a way that guides their learning so that they can become lifelong independent learners. One problem with textbooks, and in particular language textbooks, that has always plagued me is the terribly inadequate authenticity of the material. Even excellent language teachers who are native speakers have a tendency to produce “textbook language” that is a far cry from the real language that native speakers use spontaneously. If students are not weaned away from the artifice of textbook examples, they can run into very real problems. I like to tell a story about the first time I traveled to the Soviet Union in 1979, after four years of intensive study using what turned out to be rather outdated materials. Not many people were eager to talk to foreigners in those days. One of the first people who approached me was a young man who abruptly demanded “Девушка, сколько?”, literally ‘Hey girl, how much?’ I took this to mean that he had mistaken me for a prostitute and fled in horror. Later I discovered that illegal money changers commonly asked people they suspected of being foreign for the time of day. If they had a nice-looking wrist-watch and struggled with the Russian numerals, then they were probably foreigners and could be talked into selling hard currency (which was otherwise impossible to obtain in the closed economy of the time). My aristocratic instructors in the US had taught me to ask the time by saying “Который час?”, literally ‘Which hour is it?’, and neglected to mention the more modern alternative “Сколько времени?”, literally ‘How much time is it?’ so I was unprepared to parse the money changer’s question as an elliptical request for me to look at my watch.

In the early years of my career I was very much influenced by the works of Krashen and Terrell (Terrell & Krashen 1983, Krashen 1985) who promoted the idea that the language input for learners could be tailored to their learning level. However, I wanted to take this a step further by using authentic language in textbooks and in the classroom.

To bridge the gap between the language class and reality I use examples of texts and sentences that have been spontaneously produced by and for native speakers. These authentic examples come from many sources, such as the Russian National Corpus (an edited and linguistically annotated sample of over 600 million words of Russian), media, films, and songs. All of the textbooks and websites that I have authored and co-authored for language learners are built upon such authentic examples. This is a feature of my textbooks and teaching style that sets them apart from those of many other people in my profession. It is a way for me to push my students to learn beyond the classroom. It is also another way to motivate the students to learn, since, for example, they are more likely to listen many times to a pop song (for which they have been given lyrics and a link to the music video) than to repeatedly re-read a textbook assignment. Although I have been doing this for many years, in the meanwhile research has shown the benefits of authentic language in language instruction (Gilmore 2007, Erbaggio et al. 2010).

In virtually all of my courses (except the beginning language courses), students are required to go out and find more samples of their own and report back to the entire class on what they have found. I believe this is very important so that students can gain confidence as researchers in their own right. For example, in our RUS 2040 course, each student is asked to select a Russian song and carefully analyze its contents from the perspectives of Russian phonology, morphology, case and aspect (two very difficult grammatical features), and the history of the language. In our RUS 3010 course each student gives two reports to the rest of the class, one on a historical change that has taken place in the language (leading to otherwise mysterious phenomena in the modern language), and one on a sample of a Russian dialect. In our RUS 3030 course, each student selects an original research topic on a phenomenon of Russian grammar and collects data to make an analysis. Toward the end of the semester we have a small student conference in which each student presents his/her project, for discussion in the group. In the HIF 3082 course (Quantitative Methods in Linguistics), students design a research project, collect data, and run statistical analyses, and for this course I invite an external expert to listen to all the student presentations and lead the discussion of each. Of course, teaching students to conduct and present original research is very labor-intensive, since I need to meet with all of the students individually outside of class in order to assist them with their projects. But the results of this “flipped classroom” approach are absolutely worth the effort: these projects often lead to MA theses, PhD dissertations, and sometimes even publications.

Cognitive Linguistics and Usage-Based Language Teaching

As a linguist, I have always worked within cognitive linguistics (Taylor 2002, Goldberg 2006, Langacker 2008, Janda 2015), a framework that I find ideal for integrating research and teaching. Cognitive linguistics makes a minimum of assumptions about what language is, prioritizing the description of language in terms of general cognitive mechanisms rather than building an elaborate theoretical apparatus. From the perspective of cognitive linguistics, grammar is a metaphorical abstraction grounded in universal human experiences. Cognitive linguistics is also a “usage-based” approach to language, according to which language is learned based on input (eliminating the need to postulate a universal grammar). This approach to linguistics is highly compatible with second language teaching, as I and others have argued (Achard & Niemeyer 2004, Janda 2010, Cadierno & Eskildsen 2015). Results achieved in cognitive linguistics can be transferred fairly easily to applications without requiring users to master a theoretical linguistic artifice because cognitive linguistics does not make any assumptions beyond those necessary and common to all cognition, such as categorization by means of comparison to a prototype. All language learners have bodies, and they can use their embodied physical experience to make sense of the metaphors that underlie the grammars of foreign languages. Cognitive linguistics is utterly transparent in my textbooks and web-based materials, which do not require learners to have any linguistic expertise in order to access state-of-the-art analyses of language phenomena. My textbooks are among the first to apply the theoretical approach of cognitive linguistics to second language teaching.

For example, I have co-authored a series of textbooks (see full list in Section A.4) and net-based learners’ resources (see full list in Section A.5) that make my research results in analysis of Russian case and aspect accessible to learners. Case and aspect are routinely identified as the two greatest challenges to a learner of Russian (cf. Offord 2005, Martelle 2011). Case is a system of marking the role of noun phrases in Russian (similar to Latin), with six cases and an intimidatingly complex network of roles for each one. In my materials, I connect each case to universal human experiences such as taking a piece out of something, arriving at a destination, competing with a rival. I also show how all the meanings of a single case cohere in a radial category centered around a prototype that serves as the metaphorical motivation for all of the meanings. This approach takes the chaos out of what is otherwise a seemingly endless and meaningless chore of memorization. Similarly, the choice of perfective vs. imperfective aspect in Russian (a choice that must be made every time a verb is used) is notoriously difficult to sort out, with dozens of supposed “rules” that work only imperfectly. I invoke a metaphor according to which the events described by perfective verbs have the temporal properties that correspond to the properties of discrete solid objects (clear shape and edges, uniqueness, etc.), whereas imperfective verbs have the properties that correspond to those of fluid substances (spreadable, mixable). In my Aspect in Russian Media Module I invite the learner to play in a virtual sandbox with these properties and authentic examples of how aspect is used in Russian. Each aspect has a prototype and I show how the meanings cohere in a radial category. The “focus on form” approach used in my textbooks and websites is also compatible with recent research on second language acquisition (see Wong & Van Patten 2003, Robinson et al. 2012).

The Teaching/Research Cycle

I have often been warned that “real” linguists do not write language textbooks, presumably because such activity would detract from their scholarly output. I believe my career has shown that this is not the case. Instead, I have found that research and teaching go hand in hand, enriching and inspiring each other in a cyclic fashion.

The goals and audiences of theoretical contributions are typically tightly focused, offering a narrow scope perspective on phenomena. By contrast, the goals and audiences of language teaching applications, which cover entire subsystems of languages, offer a broad scope perspective on phenomena. These two approaches can be complementary and mutually supportive. The narrow scope approach can make it possible to pinpoint a problem and work out a model, which can then be extended into a broader approach. The very process of extension inevitably uncovers some previously unnoticed wrinkles in the model, leading to more narrow scope investigations.

Scholarly publications tend to offer narrowly specified theoretical contributions aimed at a relatively small group of colleagues. This is partly due to the nature of science: linguistic research is hard to do, and the horizons of our knowledge are gradually pushed forward in tiny increments. It is also partly due to the peer-review process, which makes it easier to get narrow contributions published, and disadvantages broader works. A work that takes on a broader issue constitutes a bigger target for anonymous peer reviewers, and this problem is compounded if a scholar wants to suggest a truly original analysis of a broader issue, bringing into question traditional assumptions that most peer-reviewers are heavily invested in. It is thus often narrower works that receive the prestige of publication in scholarly journals. A consequence is that there is often less prestige and less recognition by our universities attached to broader applications.

The audience of broader pedagogical applications is a potentially unlimited population of learners, whose goals include passing an exam at the end of the semester or learning to speak a language well. Learners are typically interested in macroscopic issues. They do not want part of an answer. They want an explanation that will apply as broadly and exhaustively as possible. The advantage is that they can force us as scholars to take a comprehensive look at a phenomenon and connect all the dots of a given system, often giving us new perspectives on language phenomena.

Figure 1: The Research > Pedagogy > Research Cycle

As I have experienced it, the interaction between theory and application can be cyclic (see Figure 1). Usually I start with a narrowly focused theoretical model developed on the basis of a limited dataset (metaphorically depicted by a closed fan in Figure 1). This makes it possible for me to pinpoint a problem without excess “noise” and figure out what the relevant parameters are and how they interact. Once I understand the mechanics and have a model, I can extend it to account for an entire subsystem of a language and take it into the “noisy” environment of the language classroom. Thus a narrowly focused theoretical model is translated into a broadly focused pedagogical application (metaphorically depicted by an open fan in Figure 1). Usually the nice tidy solution suggested by a linguistic model turns out to need some readjustment when it is stretched to cover the needs of the learner, and these readjustments are opportunities for new research. The new patterns and issues revealed in this process thus inspire more narrowly focused research (again metaphorically depicted by a closed fan in Figure 1). And I find that the end product of this cycle tends to open up entirely new directions that send me back through the cycle again with a new topic. For example, my scholarly investigations into specific issues relating to the meanings of Russian cases served as the basis for my Case Book for Russian textbook and interactive website. The broad perspective of that pedagogical endeavor made it possible for me to develop grammatical profiles (a means of analyzing the behavior of words based on their use in case constructions) as a scholarly linguistic methodology (as in, for example Janda & Solovyev 2009).

All of my research projects have pedagogical implications. Although I could cite hundreds of examples, I will illustrate this fact with just two, one from Russian case, and the other from aspect. Russian has six words that mean ‘sadness’, so how would a learner know how they are different? Even synonym dictionaries of Russian are not helpful. In Janda & Solovyev 2009 we showed that each synonym has a unique distribution of case forms, what we call its “grammatical profile”. For example ‘sadness’ expressed by уныние is used with the preposition в ‘in’ and the accusative case because that type of sadness is metaphorically understood as a container or hole that one falls into, whereas the грусть type of sadness is used primarily with the preposition с ‘with’ and the instrumental case because it is metaphorically understood as a type of gesture like a smile, so in Russian you say both Он сказал ее имя с грустью ‘He said her name with sadness’ and Он сказал ее имя с улыбкой ‘He said her name with a smile’. One of the challenges in learning Russian aspect is which aspect a learner should use when making a request with an imperative form, or reporting an event with a past tense form. In Janda & Lyashevskaya 2011 we analyzed the use of millions of Russian verb forms in the Russian National Corpus, and produced lists of verbs that are most attracted to the various possible combinations of aspect, tense and mood. These lists are arranged according to frequency, making it possible to target the most-used forms in teaching. Both of these investigations have solved real problems for learners.

The teaching/research cycle continues. Descriptive grammars of Russian list dozens of adverbials and other syntactic “triggers” that indicate aspect with fairly good reliability (around 96%). For example, уже ‘already’ is a trigger for perfective verbs (Я уже съела бананы ‘I already ate the bananas’), while всегда ‘always’ is a trigger for imperfective verbs (Я всегда ела бананы ‘I always ate bananas’). But these triggers only work when they are available. In the course of writing his disseration (Reynolds 2016), my PhD student Rob Reynolds discovered that even when all of the known triggers are taken in aggregate, they are relatively rare in actual language use, appearing in association with only about 2% of verbs in corpus language samples. This suggests that the known explicit contextual cues represent only the tip of the iceberg. We need to find the missing contextual cues. This is a serious problem because textbooks and language courses devote most of their presentation of how to use Russian aspect in terms of such triggers. As linguists and as instructors, we fail to represent 98% of the relationship of context to aspect. In September 2016, Rob and I ran an experiment in which 500 native Russian speakers rated the acceptability of perfective and imperfective forms in texts of 1100-1700 words representing various genres: narration, interview, journalistic prose, scientific prose, and fiction. We are still analyzing this data, but can already report that in most contexts without known triggers, native speakers can correctly select perfective or imperfective aspect based only on context, but there are some contexts where they allow both aspects (but report meaning differences), and a continuum of contexts in between these two. Respondents are less consistent in rating incorrect aspect choices. They also tend to choose the higher frequency item. Unravelling the structural, contextual, frequency and other factors and their relationship to the selection of aspect is the goal of our analysis. We hope to use machine learning and other computational techniques to ferret out the previously unidentified cues that native speakers rely on so that we can create better teaching materials for students of Russian.

In short, I have come a long way from the audio-lingual method that predominated when I was beginning my career. I have learned a lot about both language and teaching. All of my linguistic efforts have the goal of improving language teaching. And in teaching language, I always learn about further challenges that call for scholarly linguistic investigations. For me the symbiosis between research and teaching is essential to cultivating “aha” moments for my students. My teaching is research-based, and my research is teaching-based.


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