by Steve Schackne
Constitutes Useable Language
Useable language is predicated on the real need of a person
to communicate; that is, a person must have a relatively high
desire to a) uncover information, b) accomplish a specific
task, or c) solve a clearly defined problem. In short, the
speaker must have a communicative purpose. Examples would
include finding out the schedule of trains running between
Beijing and Shanghai (a), giving your staff a status report
on company financial operations over the past month (b), determining
when you can sit a make-up examination even though you have
a hectic, sixty hour, seven day a week schedule (c).
addition to being communicative, useable language must also
be portable. A speaker must be able to carry it in his head
at all times, ready for immediate use. Portability here implies
manageability. The language must be manageable-we are not
talking about a comprehensive year long program designed to
elevate a learner from low intermediate to high intermediate
level, but a limited, though defined, corpus of language,
including patterns, structure, and vocabulary designed to
carry out a function (e.g., apologizing) or a particular situational
task (e.g., buying a sports jacket in a clothing store).
For Acquiring Useable Language
most important criterion for the language lesson is that it
must be communicative. Jeremy Harmer defines communicative
as having several elements-the presence of a communicative
desire and purpose, a focus on meaning not grammar, the use
of a variety of language as opposed to one discrete language
item, minimal teacher intervention, and minimal dependence
on materials such as textbooks and tapes.
presence of a desire or purpose can not be taught, so teaching
useable language to students assumes a goal or need on the
part of the student. Unmotivated students who are taking a
required English course often have a low rate of success in
acquiring useable language, while highly motivated students
and independent learners, who seek a teacher out and have
a particular reason for learning the language, most often
communicative, useable language module must also focus on
meaning and content, not form or grammar. Since success or
failure depends on understanding and being understood, grammar's
only place is to facilitate meaning and understanding. Put
another way, grammatically flawed language, which conveys
the speaker's meaning, trumps grammatically correct language,
me go/ to the zoo.
I went/ to the zoo.
one wants to describe an action planned for tomorrow, the
ungrammatical sentence will get the job done. However, a beginner
student could, in haste, change the first three elements to
form a grammatically correct sentence which would, unfortunately,
mislead the listener. This is not to say useable language
promotes ungrammatical English-the idea is better expressed
- Tomorrow I will go to the zoo - but a focus on meaning,
not grammar, is crucial to the student being understood.
language also stresses variety rather than focusing on the
discrete. Having a store of language, being able to select
several options to express oneself is a characteristic of
native speech which is important to genuine communication.
Hence, a useable language activity always offers the student
several different ways to carry out a communicative task;
that is, the student is given several ways to say, basically,
the same thing. If one fails, the student can paraphrase and
approach the task from another angle-the more bullets in the
cylinder, the more opportunities to hit the target. Students
are also encouraged to freely draw from any previously acquired
language to carry out a communicative task.
a useable language activity also minimizes materials control
and teacher intervention. Not only are these key elements
of Harmer's communication continuum, but most real communicative
acts take place without teacher or materials accompaniment.
addition to Harmer's communicative elements, an information
gap must also be present. Speakers have a communicative purpose,
listeners must listen to discover that purpose-one (the speaker
or the listener) has knowledge the other doesn't have, creating
an information gap, and a purpose to communicate. Harmer uses
the example of a man asking a woman for the time. If the man
really wants to know what time it is, the gap lies with him-the
woman has information he doesn't have. If the man simply wants
to make the woman's acquaintance, the gap is reversed, as
the woman doesn't know the man's real purpose. The presence
of an information gap is the underlying motive for most real
communication; hence, creating one for useable language practice
is essential for genuine communication.
An information gap predicates both productive (speaking) and
receptive (listening) language. Accordingly, useable language
activities should include a reasonable amount of comprehensible
or, what Krashen referred to as roughly-tuned input.
This is receptive language which incorporates the realistic
facets of native speech-it focuses on meaning, often has minor
mistakes, stops, starts, and is recursive or somewhat repetitive.
Roughly-tuned input, with all of its hesitations and sputterings,
has the advantages of most realistically recreating genuine
speech and forcing students to focus on content. The tendency
to try to memorize is effectively eliminated.
concepts of information gaps and roughly-tuned input are communicative
because they are key elements in actual real-life communication.
Realism is an important consideration in practicing and learning
useable language modules-in fact, it is somewhat difficult
to distinguish between the terms realistic and communicative
as many principles, such as information gap, can be defined
addition to the presence of information gaps and roughly-tuned
input, the useable language module should also be contextualized-communication
does not occur in isolation. It should be presented in a realistic
situation, preferably a situation mirroring what the student
will actually encounter. Problem solving, role play or simulation,
and discussions can all be excellent activities in the useable
language classroom as they are both realistic and communicative.
order to reinforce and "map" the language, the student
should be required to use it as soon as possible-a gap of
no more than a few days should be allowed between learning
and real-life execution. The more quickly the language is
used in a real-life situation the more quickly it will be
mapped, mapping here being a synonym for acquiring, assimilating,
internalizing. Since mapping is synonymous with acquisition,
it also solidifies portability, making the language permanently
available for use at any time. The example I often use is
my experience as a youth-when I had an attack of dysentery,
I had to quickly get toilet paper from a Chinese dry goods
store. My classmates gave me the three-character word for
toilet paper, and I went across the street and purchased it.
I never forgot the term because it was learned and then immediately
used in a real-life context.
previously mentioned, useable language must also be portable.
Large amounts of language learned over a period of extended
time are not focused enough, and may be difficult to contextualize.
The useable language learner needs specific language to successfully
perform a function or communicate in a particular situation.
Traditional extended language learning is also not of the
moment-the useable language learner has an immediate need
to carry out a task-moving from one language level to another
over a period of months is not of primary concern.
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