Communicative Language Teaching: The Mainstream

Probably the most influential direction in communicative teaching has been the so- called British school , which grew out of work commissioned by the Council of Europe. In this kind of communicative teaching the requirement is that the language syllabus must be related to the real language needs of students, and the emphasis is therefore not on structures that have to be learned and filled with ‘meaning’ only afterwards; rather, the emphasis is on meaning right from the start. Especially in the influential work of Wilkins (1976) the various uses or functions of language are central; the different grammatical realizations of these functions (such as making judgments, requesting information, voicing approval, giving advice, arguing a point, persuading someone, etc.) are considered only after the various functions have been identified. Language learning is viewed as a more integrative process than in audio- lingualism, which implicitly accepted that the different elements of grammatical structure that are taught must in some way and at some unspecified (subsequent) stage be synthesized by the learner. The explicit aim here is to enable the learner to become communicatively competent in the second or foreign language.

Since the establishment of the real (functional) language needs of students has top priority in this type of communicative teaching, it results in a kind of teaching that is done not for its own sake, as is the case with many if not most traditional language teaching methods, but for some purpose that evidently lies outside of the classroom. This explains to some extent why this approach has become so attractive to both students and teachers. In taking as its purpose the ability to handle functional, real-life language, it appears to be more aligned with realistic situations, as well as with the authentic or semi-authentic texts and media that are to be found in these situations. The approach thus more easily stimulates the imagination of the course designer and teacher alike.

The priority given to the language needs of students also explains the importance attached to syllabus design (cf. Munby 1978) in mainstream communicative language teaching. It is in this respect, especially, that this direction in communicative teaching comes to depend heavily on the results of a technical-scientific analysis, which is employed to determine, through sometimes elaborate analyses, what the (functional) language needs of students are. Briefly, a language syllabus in this interpretation of communicative teaching must be based on such needs after a careful analysis of the following five contours (cf. Littlewood 1981: 82-84):

  • (a) the different situations in which students may be required to use the target language;
  • (b) the various topics that are relevant in such situations;
  • (c) the different media (telephone, letter) and/or skills (listening, speaking, reading and writing) through which communication is made possible in the relevant situations;
  • (d) the possible language functions (for example for greeting, requesting, apologizing, thanking, etc.) that have the greatest prominence in the situations identified under (a);
  • (e) the grammatical forms that are the possible realizations of such communicative functions in the different situations.

The technical-scientific analysis through which this information is identified may be used either in the design of general courses or for ones in language for specific purposes (LSP) (Flowerdew 2013). The language for specific purposes movement has, since these early days, gained such momentum that an encyclopedic overview of its practices and achievements in the case of English for specific purposes (ESP) has now been published (Paltridge and Starfield 2013). What has remained important has been the identification of learners’ needs (surveyed by Flowerdew 2013), either in more intuitive or in more sophisticated ways; in this survey of developments since the inception of the LSP/ESP movement, it becomes obvious that many of the different design styles in applied linguistics that will be discussed below in Chap. 8 have played a part in what is understood as an adequate and appropriate way of probing and identifying learners’ needs.

Several problems connected with this direction in communicative language teaching have been evident from the start. One is that, given the unpredictability not only of conversation but also of other kinds of talk, it requires skilful and competent teachers. Many of the problems that such syllabuses have when introduced on a national level as general courses of communicative ability, as is the case in the teaching of Afrikaans and English as additional languages in South Africa, as well as with home languages, are the result of a lack of a sufficiently skilled, or adequately retrained, teaching corps. And this particular problem is not limited to South Africa. Karavas-Doukas’s (1996) study revealed the mismatch between professed

(communicative) and actual teaching approach among teachers in Greece , and in later work (Karavas-Doukas 1998), she surveys countless and widespread further examples of where innovation failed. In Eritrea (Tesfamariam 2000; Weideman et al. 2003) and in Namibia (Shaalukeni 2000) there are similar indications of a resistance to change that might be strongly related to a lack of professional competence among teachers despite the official introduction of communicative teaching from the mid-1980s onwards. Hong’s (2013) descriptions of what passes as communicative language teaching in Vietnam is a further indication that resistance to its introduction is widespread globally (cf. too Littlewood 2014: 350). It is understandable that any new way of teaching will be unenthusiastically received when traditional methods, including the audio-lingual method, have readily available courses that do not constitute what is perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a threat to the authority of the teacher. As Roberts (1982: 96) points out, it is easier for teachers who are not first language speakers of the language they teach to use pre-packaged materials “than it would be for them to struggle with more open-ended techniques that could overtax their linguistic competence”, however dull, unimaginative or ineffective their instructional setting may then be. The main hurdle for the introduction of communicative language teaching, however, appears to be a lack of competence and training on the part of teachers. That hurdle may not be the only one: more often than not, the authorities who wish to introduce innovations do not place the required resources at the disposal of the teachers who must implement them. So introducing a new policy or curriculum without support by not making available appropriate instructional materials is a recipe for failure. Authorities introducing innovations may also underestimate the level of teacher development required, as well as the administrative and logistical requirements (Heugh 2013). Teachers with abilities that are in doubt, however, may prefer to fall back on the traditional: explaining the target language in the familiar vernacular available to both teacher and learners, in much the same way as in the grammar-translation method, rather than confronting the difficult challenge or enduring the uncertainty that a new approach brings.

A second difficulty arises in those cases when teachers have been trained in traditional methods that emphasize grammar and structure. They might (and often do) misinterpret the emphasis on usage and ‘function’ as elements that only need explanation for language learning to take place, as was the case in the grammar-translation method. Thus, where before they might have explained to learners the use of, say, the simple present of present continuous tense, they now believe that it is their task to explain functions of language, such as ‘agreeing’ or ‘checking’. In communicative teaching, however, as this is broadly and globally understood, this is a misinterpretation: its emphasis is on being exposed to real language (as opposed to explanations of it), and it is the doing and use of language that must take precedence. It is evident that “communicative teaching” cannot be the same as the grammar-translation method, otherwise those who conceived of its designs would have labeled it thus, since there would have been no need for a new term to describe it.

A third set of problems with communicative language teaching concerns the grading of language content to facilitate learning. It is generally admitted that language functions are less easy to grade in terms of difficulty than grammatical structures, and decisions on what should be taught at a certain stage in a course are therefore apparently more problematic. ‘Apparently’, because grammatical difficulty is of course not to be equated with learning difficulty; yet the decision on what should in the design of teaching come first and what should follow cannot be resolved in simple terms. The communicative approach has, nonetheless, sharpened the attention of the applied linguist to a course design problem that was previously, in grammatically oriented designs, given a pseudo-solution through the simple equation of learning difficulty with grammatical complexity.

The most important problem, however, concerns the question of whether, having adopted a communicative approach i our plans lo facilitate additional and foreign language learning are perhaps not once again falling prey to some (linguistically or sociolinguistically inspired) teaching ideology. Admittedly, there is little comfort to be derived from abandoning one (behaviorism grammatical) ideology by merely exchanging it for a new, though perhaps somewhat friendlier, social or sociological one. Moreover, the observation has been made that much of the renewal that mainstream communicative teaching has brought with it has focused only on the language content of courses, which, if one looks at the criticisms leveled against traditional methods of language teaching, has been identified as one of their major problems. This emphasis on linguistic rather than pedagogical or psychological insight into the applied linguistic design of communicative courses, especially in Britain and Europe, has led to the characterization of this direction as ‘L’ (for linguistic) rather than ‘P’ (for pedagogical and psychological emphases) in approach (Stern 1981: 134ff.; Roberts 1982: 99).

While its design may have an ‘L’ focus, though, one has in mainstream communicative teaching a much broader vision of language than in any of the methods that it has attempted to displace. Paradoxically, perhaps, communicative teaching practice (as opposed to the ‘L’ emphasis of its design) need not necessarily display this pre-occupation with linguistic content. Unlike approaches inspired by behaviorist structuralism, it rather seems to take the focus off language, and to put it on the tasks that we carry out with language outside the classroom, a point to which I shall return below in discussing an influential variant of CLT, task-based language teaching.

Whatever the qualms and problems are that one may have in this regard, in other words, the design intentions of the communicative approach remain distinctly different from the audio-lingual method in that CLT stimulates the pedagogical imagination of the competent teacher, tolerating far more idiosyncrasies than a more rigorously defined approach or method would. It is important to the theme of this book to note that the communicative approach also signals a clear departure from the claims of the audio-lingualists that a ‘correct’ method of language teaching is possible, specifically for all learners and circumstances. However, mainstream communicative teaching does not abandon all reliance on scientific analysis: in its sometimes elaborate proposals for determining the needs of learners, as we have observed above, it seeks to harness technical-scientific procedures to identify the language content of courses. Such a reliance on modernist expectations has endured even in more recent proposals for a “communication-oriented” design of language teaching:

Littlewood (2014: 356), for example, while admitting that the “final determinant” remains teachers’ beliefs and assumptions , still hopes that “research can seek to propose new possibilities” (2014: 357) and that these may persuade teachers to use the innovations embedded in CLT designs. In respect of this belief in the persuasive power of research, this interpretation of CLT is different from the ‘P’ emphases within communicative teaching that will be dealt with below; these, as Roberts (1982: 99) observes, usually reject fully specified linguistic objectives, also and perhaps especially when such objectives were arrived at through a process of (technical-scientific research.

While in general the mood of communicative approaches therefore signals a more humble position for applied linguistic procedures in designing teaching, the nature of the dispute between the ‘L’ and the ‘P’ emphases revolves around the issue of the relative place that scientific analysis must occupy in such design. Mainstream communicative teaching in the Council of Europe mold broadened the base of the design of foreign language teaching to include not only linguistic information concerning the description of the language content of courses, as in audio-lingual teaching, but sought also to determine the functional tanguage needs of learners in different situations. The ‘P’ direction within the communicative movement, however, rejects the relevance of such procedures in favor of the emphasis that it places on the emotional make-up of the individual learner.

Since all new approaches are to a significant extent judged in terms of the objectives and achievements of their predecessors, it is not surprising that mainstream communicative teaching has come in for criticism specifically on the question of whether it is sound as regards its reliance (or, initially, its lack of reliance) on a theory of language learning, as audio-lingualism was perceived to be. Moreover, the broadened, tnter-disciplinary base on which applied linguistic work has come to rely, discussed above (Chap. 3), makes this question all the more pertinent, since such a broadening of disciplinary inputs provides for the justification of an approach not only in linguistic, but also in psychological and pedagogical terms. Before returning to a discussion below of the linguistic justification for a communicative approach, I wish to examine first the question of the psychological justification for adopting a communicative approach to language teaching.

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