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Teaching Useable Language
by Steve Schackne

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Why Can't They Speak?

So many stories abound, that it has almost taken on the status of an urban legend. Students who spend four, eight, even ten years learning English, but have little or no communicative competence to show for it. The Japanese student reading a complicated technical manual in English, but tongue tied when trying to introduce himself to a foreigner. The Spaniard who prefaces every English noun and verb with a vowel. The English major in Taiwan who flawlessly describes the intricacies of the English verb tense-aspect system, but has to describe it all in Mandarin.

These are stories that make the rounds, some exaggerated for effect, to be sure. The glaring disconnect, however, between attendant time and elapsed time studying English, and communicative competence in English is a reality supported by empirical as well as anecdotal evidence. I often have new teachers gather English learning background information from their low level classes; specifically, the number of years the students have been studying English. The results, correctly predicted by most veteran teachers, almost always come as a surprise to the younger teachers.

Why is this? English language learning policy and practice around the globe is often caught up in inconsistencies (at best) and cross purposes (at worst).

First, the profile, or background, of teachers who practice EFL worldwide varies as much as the populations they teach. The English teacher in any given locale at any given time may be an adventurer recruited off the street or a highly renowned scholar with publications, teaching awards, and other educational accomplishments taking up several pages of a cv. This is not to say that engaging young "native speakers" can not be effective teachers. There is a social dynamic to language teaching and enthusiastic novices often bring personalities that are effective in sparking motivation in their students. There is, though, no pedagogical or logical sequence for students who are educated this way. They may learn a lot from one teacher, nothing from the next; their English may improve with teacher A and actually regress with teacher B; teacher Jones may reinforce what was previously learned, teacher Smith may contradict what was previously learned. In the long run, this is not conducive to rapid progress.

Second, methodology can vary at almost every level of the educational pyramid-from region to region, country to country, school to school, classroom to classroom. While some students are taught using communicative, task-based methods, many students are still dependent on non-communicative methods such as grammar-translation and audiolingualism. This is not to say that students can not learn language in an audiolingual, or what Skinner referred to as a behavioristic, habit formation environment. They can, but communicative, task-based methodology gives students a communicative purpose and then asks them to actually use the language to solve a problem or perform a task. The non-communicative approaches lack these two criteria of real-world language use, so students from non-communicative environments often understand the workings of the target language (metaknowledge), but can not actually perform in the target language.

Third, a distinction must be made between teaching language and teaching language-related skills; specifically, between teaching language and teaching test taking. Many purported language classes are not directed at language acquisition, but are actively involved in teaching strategies designed to pass standardized tests, either at the school, regional, or global level. TOEFL prep classes often focus on test design rather than the language tested. Students in these classes often learn that, statistically, in multiple choice tests, (c) is more often the correct choice than (a), (b), (d), or (e). Also, (all of the above) or (none of the above) are disproportionately used as correct answers, not as distracters. Along with this training, vocabulary lists, sample questions, and other non-communicative approaches are covered. This certainly helps the students achieve the goal of "passing the test," and some language might actually be acquired along the way. However, since the goal is transitory in nature (successfully jump the test hurdle), what is learned in these classrooms is often forgotten fifteen minutes after the test is over.

While a vast majority of language students do not spend a lifetime in the above three scenarios, less than ideal teaching and acquisition environments are common enough worldwide to have given rise to a wandering migration of mature language learners who, despite years of formal instruction, are still searching for the keys to using and mastering simple useable English.

What is Useable Language?

Useable language is a specific chunk of language a learner can command or control in order to successfully complete a communicative task. This task can be functional (registering a complaint with a policeman), situational (explaining an ailment to a doctor), or simply structural (manipulating questions to glean information from a university registrar).

The Research as a Whole

If one follows the research, we see a linear development which progresses from grammar-translation through audiolingualism, cognitivism, humanism, to the communicative approaches espoused by task-based advocates, such as Prabhu and Allwright, and the natural approach linguists, Terrell and Krashen.

Sorting the research can be difficult because so much has occurred in a relatively compressed period of time - the period of audiolingual primacy to the era of Stephen Krashen was merely a quarter century or so.

Today, at least for young native speakers learning to read in a literacy starved environment, the arguments seem to surround the battle between a phonics and a whole language approach. The controversy, however, has become so politicized that even the non-partisan linguists have difficulty evaluating the merits and drawbacks of those two schools of thought.

Rather, one generalization that can be distilled, as one views the last half of the twentieth century from a distance, is that "language learning" has moved from the
theoretical and the academic and more in the direction of the practical and commercial. Linguistics as a somewhat dense social science has become less popular in the academy, and language programs, which encompassed both language and literature, have fallen into disfavor on many campuses. Learners want knowledge that can be used in the marketplace, quickly-business, engineering, computer science. ESL-EFL programs now clearly de-emphasize literature and concentrate on language skills, specific language skills which often parade under acronyms such as ESP (English for Special Purposes) and EOP (English for Occupational Purposes).

While this is regrettable and perhaps only a temporary state of affairs, language teachers and program developers have to recognize that today's (2002) second language learners demand skills which are quickly and readily applicable to both a global marketplace and a global lifestyle-communicative language customized to fit a variety of professional and personal situations.

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