The Psychological Justification for a Communicative Approach to Language Teaching

Those who view applied linguistics as the scientific, ultimate solution to language teaching problems will refuse to admit that developments which actually occur in language teaching can either bypass the results of scientific research, or, if it is a significant and influential development, may initially lack justification in terms of research. The reason for this should be clear: in the context of Western scientific enterprise, science itself is proclaimed to have the ultimate solution to every problem. Yet, the history of CLT provides a good example that an influential approach to language teaching can develop without initial theoretical justification. There are clear indications that this was indeed the case in the psychological justification for a communicative approach to language teaching.

Krashen’s claim (1979: 162) that his “Monitor Theory is consistent with conclusions reached by many teachers over the last few years: the classroom is a place to give students the input they need for language acquisition via communicative activities ...” constitutes one of the typical examples of a post hoc justification for the communicative approach that was, in other words, absent - and conspicuously so to those who were judging it from an audio-lingual tradition - when the approach itself was taking shape. Significantly, Lightbown observes (1985: 181) that

it is fairly obvious that language teaching methodology has not waited for second-language acquisition research to give the signal to move from lockstep, form-based approaches to approaches which encourage ... creative, communicative language use.

Lightbown concludes that communicative language teaching can therefore in no way be said to have been caused by second language learning research, even though the latter may now, after the fact, provide valuable support for this kind of teaching, especially where skeptics and traditionalists may need to be persuaded.

When one looks at the terminology in which even such post hoc justification is cast, it becomes evident how strong the mythical belief is in the power and authority of science to guide teaching practice (as if to point the correct way for the design of language teaching from the outset).

A good example of this is to be found in the chapter “From Research to Reality: Implications for the Teacher” in a book of that time on second language acquisition studies (Dulay et al. 1982: 261ff.) that spelled out what its authors term ‘guidelines’ for the teacher. This remark, that they “do not prescribe a single method, but guidelines ...” is an indication, incidentally, of what later would be described as the death of method. The very second ‘characteristic’ of second language acquisition that they mention, presenting it to teachers as if it were the invention of ‘basic’ research, is:

Exposure to natural communication in the target language is necessary for the subconscious processors to work well .

and the third:

The learner needs to comprehend the content of natural communication in the new language.

From these ‘conclusions’, amongst others, the authors draw, for example, the following ‘guideline’:

Maximize the Student’s Exposure to Natural Communication (Dulay et al. 1982: 263; for the term “natural communication” and related terms, cf. also Burt and Dulay 1981: 178.).

Neither the triteness nor the obviousness of these ‘characteristics’ or this ‘guideline’ is under discussion here, however; rather it is the packaging in which they are presented: not as observations (from the research) that back up already existing teaching practices, but as scientific discoveries that give authoritative ‘suggestions’ for altering teaching practice. In this regard, Jakobovits and Gordon (1974: 87) observe:

When we say that ‘research suggests that ...’ we are merely engaging in nonscientific,

selective reporting, guided by prior intuitive biases or preferences for the purpose of


That making such suggestions in this way oversteps the limits of both basic and applied research is evident in view of the fact that communicative language teaching practices precede such research by at least a decade; it constitutes both a reminder and a warning that the task of applied linguistics can be and is often interpreted over-optimistically.

There is no doubt that psychological justification for language learning in communicative teaching came only after communicative materials were already being used by teachers, especially those working in academic environments, i.e. teaching English as a second or foreign language to non-native speakers who had enrolled at an Anglophone university (cf. Allwright 1977, who describes an experimental communicative class run at the University of Essex in 1974).

One of the earliest hints in the second language acquisition literature that communicative teaching can be justified is to be found in Wagner-Gough and Hatch (1975); they interpret and re-interpret data to examine the impact of dialogue patterns on second language learning, and conclude that a purely syntactic or sentence grammar analysis cannot completely explain the process of learning a new language (cf. too Hatch 1977: 6; Henning 1977). In order to explain the process of acquisition, reference has to be made to their subjects “processing much more than isolated sentence units”: instead, the process the learner was engaged in involved “sorting through and storing linguistic information ... received in language dialogues” (Wagner-Gough and Hatch 1975: 305).

Communicative language teaching was only belatedly justified in terms of second language acquisition research and constructivism, the focuses of fourth and fifth generation applied linguistic work, that will be discussed in Chap. 8 below (for further analysis and references, cf. Weideman 1999, 2006a).

From a psycho-pedagogical point of view, the development of language testing techniques also did not precede the implementation of communicative teaching in practice, and in fact this still constitutes a major applied linguistic problem that requires separate attention. Given the fact, therefore, that communicative teaching practice precedes its scientific justification from a psychological angle, we now turn to a consideration of its linguistic bases.

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