P is for Predictions (part 2)

10 09 2017

fortune teller 02In last week’s post I identified some of the tensions that characterize the current state of ELT, the resolution of which may determine the shape that the profession takes in the next decade or two.  Without daring to commit to an outcome, one way or the other, let me suggest two more dimensions along which the future of ELT may be inscribed.

  1. The tension between public and private

Most English language teaching, and specifically EFL, takes place in public institutions, such as state-funded schools or universities. In these contexts, ELT methodology is typically (but not always) constrained by such factors as class size, i.e. large numbers of learners often seated in rows; limited contact with the target language; teachers who are less that fully confident in their own command of English (even if they are expected to use it as the vehicular language in their classes); a lack of motivation on the part of the learners; and mandated curricula that are driven by exams whose focus is primarily on accuracy. Under such conditions it is not surprising that the favoured methodology is form-focused, teacher-fronted, choral, and bilingual – a variant, in other words, of grammar-translation.

In the private (or fee-paying) sector, however, things tend to be very different: with smaller class-sizes and (often) native-speaker teachers – or, even, only native-speaker teachers – albeit with minimal training. Learners may be there of their own volition, motivated by work, study, or leisure-related needs. Such an ‘ecology’ favours a more learner-centred, English-only and activity-based methodology – a variant, in other words, of communicative language teaching.

fortune teller 03It’s likely that this division will persist for the foreseeable future, particularly in developing countries, which do not have the means to support ongoing professional development of state-school teachers, but where the necessity of having ‘English’ somewhere on the curriculum will long outlive its utility. Meanwhile, attempts to redress the generally poor results in the public sector by introducing English-medium instruction (e.g. in the form of CLIL) will work only when both teachers and learners have a ‘critical mass’ of English language proficiency to support content-based learning without prejudicing the learning of the subject matter. In some contexts, this may still be generations away. Until then, any form of immersion is likely to be associated with the elite, private sector.

Indeed, the public-private polarity both reflects and intensifies existing inequalities and does not look like improving any time soon. As Bruthiaux (2002, p. 190) comments, ‘In most markets, the consumers of English language education are the relatively well-off, already far beyond the stage of mere survival. To the extent that the severely poor are aware of it at all, the global spread of English is a sideshow compared with the issue of basic economic development and poverty reduction.’

  1. The tension between ‘standard English’ and English as a lingua franca

For the original proponents of the communicative approach it was axiomatic that native-like competence was a less urgent and less realistic goal than communicative efficiency, particularly with regard to pronunciation. In theory, at least, a first language accent was tolerable so long as it was intelligible. Such generosity did not readily extend to other systems, such as grammar, which were still taught and tested according to some idealized notion of what a native-speaker might say or write. This ‘native speakerism’ was reinforced by the prestige still being bestowed on native speaker teachers, especially in the private sector (see above).  As long ago as 1999, Vivian Cook railed against this deficit model of instruction, arguing that ‘L2 users have to be looked at in their own right as genuine L2 users, not as imitation native speakers’ (1999, p. 195).

This view was given extra impetus by the realization that, for many users, English is a contact language between other English-as-an-L2 users, and that, therefore, different standards apply. The notion of English as a lingua franca (ELF) as promulgated by Jennifer Jenkins (2000) – initially in relation to phonology –  had the effect  (or should have had the effect) of moving the goalposts in the direction of the learner-user. Nevertheless, years of (often bitter) debate have not resolved the issue as to what the goalposts actually look like. Is there an emergent codifiable variety called ELF? Or is it simply an elusive social practice – a spontaneously negotiated communicative ‘dance’ involving a creative mix of pragmatics, paralinguistics, accommodation, code-switching, repair strategies and interlanguage?

fortune teller 01Either way, the effect has been to challenge, even subvert, the supremacy of the native-speaker ‘gold standard’. Will the steady penetration of English into all corners of the globe and at most levels of society, mediated by ever swifter, cheaper and more accessible technologies, do the rest?  Or will the need for some mutually intelligible ‘common core’ tip the argument in favour of retaining the Queen’s English (or a version thereof)? The jury is out.

I had promised to discuss three ‘tensions’ today, but I am already out of time. Will there be more Predictions? Place your bets!

References

Bruthiaux, P. (2002) ‘Hold your courses: language education, language choice, and economic development.’ TESOL Quarterly, 36/3.

Cook, V. (1999) ‘Going beyond the native speaker in language teaching.’ TESOL Quarterly, 33/2.

Jenkins, J. (2000). The phonology of English as an international language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.





F is for Functions

20 08 2017

7th function of languageThere are not many novels whose theme is linguistics but the book I took to read on vacation is one of them. It’s called The Seventh Function of Language, and is by the French writer Laurent Binet (2015; English translation 2017). It’s a sort of whacky thriller that plays with the idea that the death of the French semiotician, linguist and literary theorist Roland Barthes (he was run over by a laundry van only hours after lunching with François Mitterand in 1980) was not an accident. It appears that Barthes had stumbled upon an as yet unidentified function of language – one so powerful that, in the wrong hands, it might wreak havoc.

In order to enlighten the lay reader, Binet recaps the six functions of language as identified by one of Barthes’ most important influences, the Russian-born linguist Roman Jakobson, and spelled out in a lecture Jakobson gave when assuming the presidency of the Linguistic Society of America in 1956.

These six functions map neatly on to each of the six dimensions of any speech event – the context, the addresser and addressee, the physical and psychological channel (or contact) between them, the language (or code), and the message itself. They are

  1. the referential function, i.e. the way language refers to the context, whether local or global, real or imagined, in which it is used – e.g. ‘It’s 35 degrees in the shade.’
  2. the emotive, or expressive function, i.e. the way that addressers encode their attitude, or their degree of commitment, to the message, e.g. ‘It’s too darned hot!’
  3. the conative function, where the focus is on the addressee, e.g. in the form of a command: ‘Why don’t you turn on the fan?’
  4. the phatic function, where language is being used to lubricate the channel of contact, irrespective of its content, as when we make small talk: ‘Hot enough for you?’
  5. the metalinguistic function, where language itself is the focus, as in ‘How do you say heat-wave in Swedish?’ and
  6. the poetic function, where language draws attention to itself – its form, style, and aesthetics – as in the playful use of rhyme in the line ‘the rain in Spain falls mainly on the plain.’ Or, more sublimely, the cadences of Shakespeare’s song:

Fear no more the heat o’ the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages…

Jakobson himself noted that ‘although we distinguish six basic aspects of language, we could, however, hardly find verbal messages that would fulfill only one function’ (1990, p. 73).  That is to say, any one utterance can encode different functions, just as one function can be realized by various linguistic means.

Laurent BinetThe Binet novel is a useful reminder as to how seminal a figure Jakobson was: arguably the most influential linguist of the 20th century.

Born in Moscow in 1896, he studied philology but, even at a young age, he was frustrated by the failure of linguistics to see beyond the ‘scattered parts’ of language, thereby ignoring how it functions as a whole. In 1920 he moved to Prague and helped form the ‘Prague Circle’ where he was able to pursue his interest in the way that the parts of language – specifically its phonemes – form an interconnected system, whereby the parts can only be described in relation to other parts. Because of this concern for the inherent systematicity of language, Jakobson aligns with the structuralist tradition dating back to Saussure. But it would be wrong to think of Jakobson’s linguistics as purely formal (in the American tradition of Fries and Chomsky) and that he disregarded meaning: his interest in the functions of language – a line of enquiry he further elaborated after moving to the US in 1939 – attests to his ‘bi-focal’ view of language. Indeed, as Waugh and Monville-Burston note, in the introduction to their edition of Jakobson’s works (1990, p. 14):

For the Prague Circle, functionalism and structuralism were inseparable. Jakobson himself described his theory of language as one in which function (language as a tool for communication) and structure (language as a lawful governed whole) are combined…: language is structured so as to be suitable for communication.

The pedagogical implications of this two-pronged view of language continue to reverberate – and to challenge teachers and course designers alike. How do you reconcile the fact that language is a tool for communication while at the same time it is a rule-governed system (of considerable intricacy and complexity)? The pendulum seems to swing both ways without ever finding a point of equilibrium.

Thus, for structuralist-influenced approaches, such as audiolingualism, the syllabus was unapologetically structural and the major focus of instruction was pattern practice – although it would misrepresent audiolingualism to say that it ignored communication entirely. Indeed, a key document in the audiolingual canon observes that ‘probably the best way to practice a foreign language is to use it in communicating with others. Thus, teachers should provide time for meaning-oriented practice’ (Krohn 1971, p. viii).

JakobsonOn the other hand, the communicative approach, in seeking to redress the prevailing structural bias by substituting a syllabus of functions or tasks, may have erred in the opposite direction. Besides, as Brumfit was one of the first to point out, (1978, p. 41), a functional syllabus simply replaces one set of discrete-items with another: ‘No inventory of language items can itself capture the essence of communication.’

The reversion to a grammatical syllabus that now drives most general English programs, although notionally ‘communicative’ in their allegiance, seems to have sent the pendulum swinging back again.

It is testimony to the greatness of Jakobson that he was able to bestride these two poles with enormous intellectual, cultural and linguistic authority. It’s only a pity that he had no advice to give us language teachers.

Meanwhile – is there a seventh function of language? Well, you will have to read Binet to find out!

References

Binet, L. (2017)The 7th Function of Language (translated by S. Taylor). London: Harvill Secker.

Brumfit, C.J. (1978) “‘Communicative” language teaching: an assessment’, in P. Strevens (ed.) In Honour of A.S. Hornby. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Krohn, R. (1971) English sentence structure. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Jakobson, R. (1990) On Language. Edited by Waugh, L. R. & M. Monville-Burston. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.





C is for CLT

8 03 2015

Having been trained in what might best be described as late-flowering audiolingualism, it was not until my second year of teaching that I became aware of Communicative Language Teaching (CLT) and how it represented such a radical shift from current methodology. I think it must have been the influence of the Strategies series (Abbs et al. 1975) but before long everything went functional-notional, information gap activities were the rage, and formal accuracy, along with error correction, went out the window. Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive! In fact, the advent of CLT coincided nicely with my own disenchantment with drilling and with the snail-like progress through the structural syllabus that seemed only to thwart the latent fluency of my (Egyptian) students.

Being communicative, Cairo 1976

So, what did we gain? The emphasis on language’s social function, including attention to appropriacy and register, was important, not least because – to practise ‘being social’ with language – we needed to include lots of interactive activities, such as role plays and ‘real’ conversations, into our classes. This in turn led to the idea that (perhaps, just perhaps) such activities, rather than being simply practice of previously presented language items, could be the springboard to learning itself: that is to say, that you could learn a language simply through using it. This, after all, was a core tenet of the ‘strong’ version of CLT and was an extremely powerful idea (captured in the term ‘fluency-first), influencing all my subsequent thinking on methodology.

What we lost, from the benefit of hindsight, was a ‘focus on form’. Even if you can learn a language by using it, you still need to have your attention directed to the language’s formal features, if only so that you are ‘primed’ to notice them in situations of real language use. That realization prompted my first ever IATEFL talk, which was called ‘No pain, no gain’.

But what we also lost was the communicative approach itself. I still believe that CLT was ‘betrayed’ in the mid-1980s by the revival of the grammar syllabus and the associated drift back to an accuracy-first methodology. (A subsequent talk of mine on this topic was called ‘Not waving but drowning’). I also believe that it is possible to combine a fluency-first methodology with a focus on form, so long as that focus is primarily reactive, not pre-emptive. I’ve been lucky enough to see this occur myself, in classes I’ve observed. And, of course, the view that language learning is both an emergent and scaffolded phenomenon is fundamental to what was to become Dogme ELT. Dogme ELT was really an attempt to inject new life into CLT.

So, is Dogme ELT the future of CLT? I doubt it, somehow. The commodification and marketization of education, including language education, continues unabated. Where the language English is just another curriculum subject, where it is viewed as knowledge to be learned rather than a skill to be activated, and where it is measured less by communicative competence than by the results of high-stakes testing, then there is not a lot of incentive for a fluency-first approach. In such an educational climate, concepts so fundamental to CLT as authenticity, fluency, discovery and collaboration seem outmoded, or, at best, ‘add-ons’ for those who can afford the luxury of small classes of communicatively-motivated learners. Given the appeal that still attaches to the word ‘communicative’, though, CLT will probably continue to prosper as a brand, even though its original ingredients may have long since been reconstituted.

Strategies smallReference

Abbs, B., A. Ayton, A., and I. Freebairn. 1975. Strategies: Students’ Book. London: Longman.

This was my ‘half’ of the conversation with Jeremy Harmer that we ‘performed’ at the IATEFL Conference in Harrogate in April 2014, and which is written up in IATEFL 2014 Harrogate Conference Selections, edited by Tania Pattison (Faversham, Kent: IATEFL 2015).

 

 

And here is a video of the conversation when it was first aired, at The New School, NY, in July 2013:

 





M is for Method

28 11 2010

I’m moderating a Diploma course discussion on methodology this week, so, for a change I thought I’d post a short video of me going on about it.

Seven key quotes on the subject of method, some of which I refer to in the video:

  1. “Methods are of little interest”  Kelly, L.G.  1969. 25 Centuries of Language Teaching. Rowley, MA: Newbury House, p. 2.
  2. “The development of language-teaching methods … has in fact been empirical rather than theory-directed. […] The fact seems to be that teachers have ‘followed their noses’ and adopted a generally eclectic approach to teaching methods…” Corder, S. P. 1973. Introducing Applied Linguistics. Harmondsworth: Penguin. pp. 135-6.
  3. “During the sixties and seventies several developments indicate a shift in language pedagogy away from the single method concept as the main approach to language teaching.”  Stern, H.H. 1983. Fundamental Concepts of Language Teaching. Oxford University Press, p. 477.
  4. “The widespread dissatisfaction with the conventional concept of method has produced what I have called a postmethod condition.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 1994. The Postmethod condition: (E)merging strategies for second/foreign language teaching. TESOL Quarterly, 28, p. 43.
  5. “Methods, however the term is defined, are not dead. Teachers seem to be aware of both the usefulness of methods and the need to go beyond them.”  Bell, D. 2007. Do teachers think that methods are dead?  ELT Journal, 61, p. 143.
  6. “I consistently use method to refer to established methods conceptualised and constructed by experts in the field ….  I use the term, methodology, to refer to what practicing teachers actually do in the classroom in order to achieve their stated or unstated teaching objectives.”  Kumaravadivelu, B. 2006. Understanding Languge Teaching: From Method to Postmethod. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum, p. 84.
  7. “The concept of method has not been replaced by the concept of postmethod but rather by an era of textbook-defined practice. What the majority of teachers teach and how they teach … are now determined by textbooks.”  Akbari, R. 2008. Postmethod discourse and practice. TESOL Quarterly, 42/4, p. 647.




C is for Communicative

15 08 2010

A communicative activity- Teaching Practice at the New School this summer

The term communicative is applied fairly loosely.  Typically it’s used to describe any activity in which learners are interacting with one another. So, a coursebook activity in which learners perform a scripted dialogue, or a minimal pairs activity which involves pairs pronouncing words to one another and identifying the appropriate picture on a worksheet, might both be labelled  ‘communicative’. No wonder, therefore, that the term communicative approach has become so elastic as to embrace any methodology that foregrounds speaking in pairs or small groups.

But, strictly speaking, communicative means more than simply interactive. In An A-Z of ELT I list the features of a communicative activity as being the following:

  • purposefulness: speakers are motivated by a communicative goal (such as getting information, making a request, giving instructions) and not simply by the need to display the correct use of language for its own sake;
  • reciprocity: to achieve this purpose, speakers need to interact, and there is as much need to listen as to speak;
  • negotiation: following from the above, they may need to check and repair the communication in order to be understood by each other;
  • synchronicity: the exchange – especially if it is spoken – usually takes place in real time;
  • unpredictability: neither the process, nor the outcome, nor the language used in the exchange, is entirely predictable;
  • heterogeneity: participants can use any communicative means at their disposal; in other words, they are not restricted to the use of a pre-specified grammar item.

The archetypal communicative activity is the information gap task (of the type that the students are doing in the picture above) where Student A has some information and Student B has some other information, and the task requires that they share this information in order to achieve the designated outcome. Describe and DrawSpot the Difference and Find Someone Who... are all examples of information gap activities that meet the criteria outlined above.

But what is their particular merit over, say, activities – such as rehearsing a scripted dialogue or playing a game like Pelmanism –  that are interactive but not strictly communicative? The standard argument (and a key tenet of the communicative approach) is that such activities better reflect the way language is used in the ‘real world’. A corollary to this view (and a core principle of task-based instruction) is that language is best acquired through such life-like language exchanges.  Cognitive theorists might add that the attention to meaning required in communicative interaction requires that learners ‘park’ their concern for formal accuracy, and thereby develop strategies – such as ‘chunking’ – that promote fluency.

None of these arguments is necessarily proven nor conclusive: for a start, it’s debatable whether info-gap activities truly replicate real-life language use – when did you last ‘describe and draw’ something, for instance?  And the argument that classroom interaction should model authentic language use overlooks the fact that classrooms, by their nature, have their own discourse norms and practices which may be quite different from “real-life”.  Finally, isn’t there a danger that – if the concern for formal accuracy is ‘parked’ indefinitely – the learner’s overall proficiency might be at risk? (See the post on P for Push, for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, there also seems to be a good case for arguing that only life-like language use can tap into the cognitive and affective factors that both motivate and nurture language acquisition. But this presupposes that  the communication matters: that it is both contingent – i.e. it connects to the real-world in some way – and engaging: that it engages the learners’ needs, interests, concerns and desires. In short, the learner needs to have some personal investment in the communication. This is what I have sometimes referred to as big-C Communication, as opposed to the kind of small-c communication that is characterised by the six criteria above. The difference between big-C and small-C communication seems to underpin this comment by Legutke and Thomas (1991):

In spite of trendy jargon in textbooks and teacher’s manuals, very little is actually communicated in the L2 classroom. The way it is structured does not seem to stimulate the wish of learners to say something, nor does it tap what they might have to say. … Learners do not find room to speak as themselves, to use language in communicative encounters, to create text, to stimulate responses from fellow learners, or to find solutions to relevant problems (pp 8-9).

So, in order to capture the defining qualities of big-C Communication, I would add the following to my list:

  • contingency: the speakers’ utterances are connected, both to one another, and to the context (physical, social, cultural, etc)  in which they are uttered;
  • investment: the speakers have a personal commitment to the communication and are invested in making it work.

How you achieve these worthy goals is, of course, another matter!

Reference:

Legutke, M. and H. Thomas. 1991. Process and Experience in the Language Classroom. Harlow: Longman.





S is for “Strategies”

7 03 2010

At the ELTONs awards ceremony in London this week, I had the good fortune to be seated next to Ingrid Freebairn. If you weren’t already teaching in the 70s and 80s, you might not know that Ingrid was one of the team that wrote  Strategies (what became known as ‘white Strategies’), published by Longman in 1975. Strategies was the first major course to espouse a functional (or notional-functional) syllabus. Up until then the structural syllabus – that legacy of audiolingualism – was still the reigning paradigm. A structural syllabus is a form-based syllabus, organized primarily according to criteria of structural complexity. So, you start with the verb to be, then the present continuous, then the present simple, and so on.  Strategies, by contrast, adopted a semantic organization, with unit headings such as Invitations, Ability, Polite requests, Recent Activities and Speculating about the past. In the words of the blurb on the back cover: “In these materials the criteria are primarily functional and secondarily structural.”

In adopting a semantic organisation, Strategies was instrumental in introducing the ‘communicative approach’ to a generation of teachers (including myself) who had been formed during the late-audiolingual era. Although still labelled “functional-notional”,  the approach that Strategies embodied  was communicative. It had to be, because, if you base your curricular goals around functions (such as Polite requests) or notions (such as Ability), you need a methodology that allows these meaning-driven goals to be realized in terms of classroom activity. You need role plays and dialogues. Moreover, you need activities that distract attention away from a focus on (grammatical) form and, instead, encourage a concern for meaningful interaction. So you need communicative games, information-gap tasks, and jigsaw activities. For someone like myself who had been trained mainly to elicit, drill and correct structural patterns, this radical shift in learning objectives and teaching procedures was truly revolutionary.

For that reason I have always had a soft spot for ‘white’ Strategies, and its subsequent re-packaging as the (more systematic and more colourful)  Strategies series (Starting… Opening… Building… Developing…). So, as we tucked into the ELTONs dinner, I happened to ask Ingrid what had inspired the concept behind the Strategies series.  While she did not quite echo my sentiment of  “bliss was it, in that dawn to be alive!”, she did confirm that the mid-seventies was an exhilarating time for methodologists and materials writers, where the sense of a sea-change was palpable, and where the publishers, too, were prepared to throw caution to the wind.

The original site of the University of Reading

What I hadn’t realized, until talking with Ingrid, was that the thinking behind Strategies was directly influenced by the work of David Wilkins, then at the University of Reading, where Ingrid had just completed a Masters degree. Wilkins was one of the chief architects of what would come to be known as the communicative approach: his seminal Notional Syllabuses, building on his work with the Council of Europe, would be published in 1976. In fact, when I got home and pulled down my copy of Strategies (long ago rescued from a recycling bin at IH Barcelona) I found that this connection is explicitly acknowledged:

From the work of David Wilkins we took as our starting point this quotation:

What people want to do through language is more important than the mastery of language as an unapplied system.

How come I had never noticed that acknowledgement before? More worryingly, what happened, subsequently, to reverse this sea-change – to make the structurasl syllabus the primary one again, and the semantic one only secondary? Why is it that “the mastery of language as an unapplied system” again takes precedence over its communicative purposes? What happened to the communicative approach?