Gethin’s articles are not really subjective, I think it is very clear that he is being more objective than advocates of Communicative language teaching, because they don’t have scientific evidence it works, and they base their ideas about language teaching on their feeling or interactions between people, rather than objective rational reasoning. Your example of bursting into tears might be an instance of that.
Gethin starts by stating that he believes languages can be learned but cannot be taught. This idea is not so strange or unique, it is essentially the same as Steven Krashen’s hypothesis that conscious classroom learning, cannot be converted into language learning, and output which is subconscious. Gethin believed we learn by language input that we direct, by choosing what to read or hear, so we can do it at our own pace, and this is what Steven Krashen says when he talks about comprehensible input is what leads to language learning. Output, or speaking, can only demonstrate what we already know, in other words it is a performance test. So we can’t learn language by practicing speaking, because that part of the brain is not where language is learned.(monitor hypothesis, affective filter) In stressful situations we can’t even do that well, and being asked to follow scripted lessons in a class would seem very stressful if you are paying for it and expect a grade. Krashen has recently revised his theories to make clearer what he meant and now he says reading for pleasure is the real way to learn.
You might think your classrrom group or pariwork activities are some kind of free form discussion activities where students can relax and say what they want, in a low stress situation, but they really are given topics, and scripted and basically told what to say and monitored, and this is all a performance sitiuation. Using language for output. Gethin says this is a task and a test , and he says it is immorral to impose endless tests on students. Given that there is no end or real goal in these communicative speaking activities, the stress of being in an endless learning cycle is an imposition. The classes are like lab sessions and require students to be there, and they are long classes , sometimes several days a week. Gethin says the culture of lessons, and more lessons is the problem. He is writing about a whole systemic problem. A culture of the wrong kind of lessons that trap students where they can’t really learn and it takes their money, and the only way they can learn is when they escape these programs.
Gethin’s theory is we learn, by observing language in use by reading and trying to guess meaning or look up words. No one can do that for you but yourself. Again this is not so strange. Recent studies have shown that students who self direct their language learning by reading and other means, learn faster and do better on a test of comprehension and knowledge than students taught in CLT programs with a teacher. It has been proven many times. In addition there is not evidence to say that students in pairwork or group work with a teacher learn better or faster than students who study only through language input or self directed reading for pleasure. I suppose Gethin sounds extreme or subjective because he is the only person arguing against and entire industry of mass marketted materials and lessons which are all based on CLT. But studies that he had no involvement with also back his ideas.
There are also studies to show that students in group and pairwork CLT lessons end up learning each other’s mistakes, and can never rise above the level of the others in the class because they can not correct each other’s mistakes and convert that to knowledge. These are studies with elementary and high school students.
Finally your analogy about learning to paint is interesting because you use it to make a case for how we can teach language , by slowng it down and giving it to students in simplified forms. This is appealing, but it’s not how we learn to paint, we learn to paint by observing nature and continously sketching until the brain can catch up with the eye and the hand can catch up with the brain, and it all becomes coordinated, but ultimately it is in the act of the artist observing light. The teacher can’t break it down into simple parts. for the student to master and put together. It has to be ultimatly put together into a coordinated effort by only the student and only by themselves.
Similarly, the language teacher can not slow down the perception of the students’ language learning mind or adjust it in any way, or even anticipate where it is. The student can only observe language on their own. It is all internal to the mind of the student. Gethin said we learn language by observing it in use, and that is similar to how we learn to paint by observing what we see. No one else can do the observing or make the connections for us, according to Gethin.
The whole thing comes down to how you believe students learn language and how much a teacher can do for students. Gethin stressed that his theory was not for beginning students. I talked with Gethin a lot about this and he said that in the early stages of development, they need a teacher for basic vocabulary, basic grammar and to get started. For the first year or so. His articles are really about advanced or adult programs once students are able to read and do basic decoding and know the basic grammar. he was mainly concerned about the kind of programs for immigrants at Universities, or high school ESL. Gethin was a self taught language learner and used the example of polyglots to show that the way languages are learned is self taught and has to be self taught for it to ever work. He was just speaking out for the common good because teachers did not believe it was their job to teach students how to self direct their language learning. There has been some movent in that direction of learner autonomy in recent years but that is in conflict with communicative teaching methods in my opinion.