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The Linguistic Justification for the Communicative Approach

The question that will once more concern us here is whether the role of scientific analysis in communicative teaching is such that it is prescriptive and precedes such teaching, or whether it rather forms a subsequent justification for an already existing teaching practice.

There is no doubt that the ideas of Habermas (1970), Halliday (1978), Searle (1969) and, especially, Hymes (1971) form a strong justification, from a linguistic point of view, for the communicative approach to language teaching. The question, however, is whether the justification that could be given for teaching language communicatively was available before or after the actual adoption of the new approach. Do we have an instance here, in other words, of where developments in linguistics have influenced trends in language teaching? And if there is such an influence, is it of a prescriptive nature, or at least cast in the form of a plan or design for language teaching, in the way that audio-lingualism was?

To both these questions one must answer negatively, at least as far as the initial stages are concerned. Rather, it seems, the communicative approach “draws inspiration” from new ideas and developments in linguistics, as Roberts (1982: 97) puts it before he goes on to state that the communicative approach to language teaching “has resulted from the conjunction of the need to teach languages as a social tool with the availability of new ideas about the nature of language as a social tool”.

What Hymes had done, according to Roberts (1982: 97f.), was merely to identify and voice “an idea corresponding powerfully with teacher’s intuitions, lending these theoretical justification ... at an appropriate time in history ...” However sketchy the idea of communicative competence was, it could therefore function as support for new ways of teaching.

In this respect, it is also interesting to note that statements regarding the kind of linguistic insight that would be considered as “most applicable” to language teaching generally imply some sociolinguistic idea, even though, for the proponents of the idea, it may not be available as yet in a more or less complete form. Hymes (1985: 10f.) himself remarked that “applied linguistics is the area of linguistics in which the practical necessity of a perspective like that of communicative competence is most evident” but, significantly, concluded that “we are still far from having the kind of linguistics that is necessary to the tasks of language teaching .” This is a statement that echoes the sentiments of Carroll (1965: 208), expressed 20 years before Hymes’s observation, that there is no “good general theory” of learning or language that would allow us to make effective teaching decisions. These are illustrations, once again, of the inescapable differences in task between linguistics and applied linguistics on the one hand, and applied linguistics and its design role in language teaching, on the other. Where these differences are not acknowledged, inevitably too much is expected of linguistics and applied linguistics.

What is even more interesting, though, is that the idea of communicative competence not only may have given language teachers a theoretical (sociolinguistic) justification for what they needed to do or were perhaps already doing, but may in fact also have been introduced into the context of language teaching and language acquisition studies before or at the same time as Hymes’s original formulation (1971). Citing several independent and roughly simultaneous uses of the notion by theoreticians such as Bar-Hillel and Jakobovits (cf. too Habermas 1970, who himself refers frequently to Searle’s work) as well as by Savignon - widely regarded as one of the earliest practitioners of communicative methodology (Roberts 1982: 99) - Hymes (1985: 15) remarks: “The phrase seems to have been introduced independently in the study of language teaching and learning.”

Moreover, there is evidence that language teaching that passes the acid test for being communicative, viz. that it utilizes the bridging of an information gap, was in existence long before any theoretical j ustification was forthcoming for such an approach. Carroll (1965: 211), for example, describes a language teaching experiment at the Defense Language Institute in California that must surely be the forerunner of what became known, in communicative language teaching, as the total physical response (TPR) technique: “Thus, the student learns the meaning of the foreign language word for jump by actually jumping! Language teaching becomes a sort of physical exercise ...”

Even the article, in 1965, by Prator, which can perhaps be regarded as the first plea for the introduction of communicative activities in the classroom, says very little, substantially, about either the theoretical justification of these or about the content or method through which such activities can be conducted, but rather chooses to criticize audio-lingualism and to highlight its weak points if viewed from the goal of communication. This is evidence, in other words, of practical pedagogical dissatisfaction with the audio-lingual method rather than of a theoretically inspired alternative proposal. Similarly, Johnson (1969: 238), arguing from a practical, pedagogical stance against the exclusive reliance of applied linguistic designs on linguistics, gives us a hint of things to come when he remarks that, since a request pattern causes individuals to interact (whereas statement patterns, so pervasive in audio-lingual courses, cause isolation), “it could well be argued that we might most profitably begin language courses with request patterns.”

One is advised to conclude, therefore, that sophisticated or elaborate theoretical justification (in the form of, for example, the idea of communicative competence) was absent when practical proposals for communicative teaching began to surface and to be reported in the literature. Especially the independent use of the latter idea indicates the happy confluence, as it were, of practical notions in foreign and second language teaching with their (more or less) elaborated theoretical formulation.

Certainly the history of the notion of communicative competence hardly indicates any precedence or widespread dissemination in sociolinguistic circles that could have been so influential as to alter, in a prescriptive manner, the course of language teaching itself. The sociolinguistic idea of a communicative ability, command or competence rather appears to have been theoretical fuel to the fire already burning in teaching designs and practices, to have added some additional justification, in other words, to what was already happening in language teaching. In a word, the influence of the idea of communicative competence on the communicative approach to language teaching appears to be not prescriptive, but post hoc.

What we clearly see here is how the prescriptive character of the audio-lingual method, deriving as it does from its supposed ‘scientific’ authority, was undermined in this subsequent, communicative approach to language teaching. Far from being derived from scientific theory, the imaginative designs that are typical of CLT were, for the most part, justified only subsequently. As we have noted in a previous chapter, for example, Paulston (1974: 350), while still adamant that the views of Hymes (1971) should somehow be reflected in language teaching, acknowledges in the same breath that at the time that she was writing, the theory was still incomplete. She further acknowledges that, in the 5 years preceding her observations in this paper, i.e. since 1969, “there has been an increasing - and justified - concern for communicative activities in language teaching” (Paulston 1974: 348).

The birth of communicative language teaching provides one of the clearest illustrations that, in designing solutions to language teaching problems, theory does not lead the way (Weideman 2006b). It constitutes a true turning point in designing language teaching, the subfield whose designs still constitute one of the most significant applied linguistic intervention points. Breaking the continuity between linguistics, as a purported source discipline, and applied linguistics, as the willing recipient of its knowledge (Klosek 1985 : 15), is a historical development whose importance is still underestimated.

We shall, however, consider below, in a discussion of the various historically available styles of applied linguistics (Chap. 8) whether this break was as complete as many working in the postmodernist tradition, a more recent way of doing applied linguistics, would have desired. Such are the effects of historical continuity within the discipline that there is a continuing struggle between expectation and sobriety, between pride and humility (Weideman 2006b) .

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