Current pedagogic approaches to modern foreign languages (MFL) teaching focus on communicative competence, which simply means to equip the learner with the knowledge, skills and interpersonal strategies they need effectively to be able to communicate with speakers of the language in question.
Many different perspectives on the nature of language, a “complex phenomenon” as Cunningsworth (1995) comments, can be found both in the theoretical literature and in the coursebooks and materials we use. These perspectives may in certain cases be stated explicitly, while in others they may remain implicit. In either case, however, they are present and influence how the language is presented to students and which aspects of it are selected for study.
On the other hand, “communication” has become a buzz word and an umbrella term which is applied to almost any approach to MFL teaching and learning nowadays. That is why it is important to be clear about its concept and implications
“There are rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless”, wrote the sociolinguist D. Hymes in 1972. This marks a before and an after in language teaching. Up to then, language had been seen as made up of phonology, grammar and vocabulary, analysed as separate entities, without much attention being paid to the “appropriate” use of the language in real everyday situations. That is one of the reasons why the methods used produced grammatically competent students but only too often “communicatively incompetent” ones.
The growth of the communicative approach in the 1970s emphasised that language is a tool for achieving communicative goals, and not simply a linguistic system in its own right. At the same time, language is a system, and mastering this system (or parts of it at least) is a meaningful form of communication. A coherent approach to language teaching therefore calls for choices to be made about all these aspects.
That is why this section centres around four main visions of the nature of language as proposed by Tudor (2001), all of them having to do with language as communication:
- Language as a linguistic system.
- Language from a functional perspective.
- Language as self-expression.
- Language as culture and ideology.
Other perspectives exist, and this section does not claim to provide a comprehensive overview of all theories of language, but simply to examine some of the more frequent ways of seeing language which teachers are likely to encounter in the daily practice of teaching.
Now, we will not give you all of them, but only two first. You may read the third and the fourth one in the next posting
Language as a linguistic system
The language system comprises three main elements: phonology, vocabulary and grammar. They are part of linguistic competences, which is one of the components of communicative language competence. Following the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages, published by the Council of Europe in 2001, they include lexical, phonological, syntactical knowledge and skills and other dimensions of language as system, independently of the sociolinguistic value of its variations and the pragmatic function of its realisations. This component relates not only to the range and quality of knowledge (e.g. in terms of phonetic distinctions made or the extent and precision of vocabulary) but also to cognitive organisation and the way this knowledge is stored (e.g. the various associative networks in which the speaker places a lexical item) and to its accessibility (activation, recall and availability). Knowledge may be conscious and readily expressible or may not (e.g. once again in relation to mastery of a phonetic system). Its organisation and accessibility will vary from one individual to another and vary also within the same individual (e.g. for a plurilingual person depending on the varieties inherent in his or her plurilingual competence). It can also be held that the cognitive organisation of vocabulary and the storing of expressions, etc., depend, amongst other things, on the cultural features of the community or communities in which the individual has been socialised and where his or her learning has occurred.
Read my next posting about language from a functional perspective, language as self-expression, language as culture and ideology.