by Steve Schackne
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).
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.
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.
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?
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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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