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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Responsible Design in Applied Linguistics: Theory and Practice

Concluding Observations, and a Current, Rather Than a Final, Flourish

In the preceding discussion three major early trends in second and foreign language teaching have been dealt with: audio-lingualism, communicative language teaching (specifically the mainstream) and humanistic approaches, the latter treated as a variant within communicative language teaching that places great emphasis on the emotional aspects of learning in contrast to the linguistic bias of the mainstream within that movement. Where audio-lingualism placed supreme confidence and trust in scientific analysis and applied linguistic designs, humanistic teaching proclaims the opposite: in essence, the freedom of the individual language learner from externally imposed expectations. Mainstream communicative language teaching, on the other hand, has an ambivalent record in its attitude towards the task of scientific analysis in language teaching: starting out as a movement without much theoretical backing, it has come to rely to some extent on theoretical j ustification and on technical- scientific analyses that support the design of the teaching curriculum.

Perhaps we can learn most about the position and task of applied linguistics by looking at these aspects of CLT. It is, in the first instance, at least historically incorrect to attribute the origins of the communicative approach to language teaching to leading theoretical ideas. As we have noted, even Hymes, the scholar whose work on communicative competence (1971; 1985) is most frequently cited to justify CLT, regards the almost simultaneous introduction of the term by him and by others concerned with language teaching and learning as evidence of an independent use of the idea. Thus Newmark (1966: 161), a good time prior to Hymes, was already discussing in 1966 the contrast between learning linguistically identified grammatical structures and the real “capability a person needs in order to use the language”.

I n an important sense, therefore, it is impossible to conclude that scientific endeavor has any prescriptive influence on, or in this case has found any direct reflection in language teaching practice. This historical reality is distorted by applied linguists and linguists who are under the influence of the ideal of science, for it strikes a blow at the very roots of this ideology, which views science as the unquestioned authority in all matters.

The communicative approach has, be it sometimes in an indirect way, again focused our attention on the crucial distinction between criteria that result from theoretical reflection and those that precede such reflection, yet are guides to our day-to-day living, of which teaching and learning form a part. The latter type of criteria, which may be called practical ideas, is what Newmark (1966: 163; cf. too Allwright 1977: 180) has in mind when he says: “The odd thing is that despite our ignorance as experts, as human beings we have always known how to teach other human beings to use a language.”

An acknowledgement of practical guidelines for teaching that do not originate in theoretical reflection, but that precede it, is necessary in view of the fact that in a scientistic society pre-theoretical knowledge is regarded as dangerous, by definition unsound, erroneous, and so forth. In an important sense the communicative approach has relied not on theoretical adequacy, but on bringing teaching into line with perceived (yet unformulated and perhaps quite inexplicit) norms involved in the complex activity of teaching. It has served as a reminder that our theoretical understanding of the complex realities of teaching and of the psychological make-up of learners is so poor that “nobody will ever produce a definitive teaching methodology” (Littlewood 1981: 95). The concrete act of teaching does not exist by grace of our theoretical understanding of it, but precedes such reflection. Applied linguistic intervention in the process of teaching by means of technical-scientific analyses of l earner needs, curriculum content and other aspects of the process, and also the designs for language teaching that result from such intervention, will have to acknowledge and honor this.

Within the applied linguistic literature that is supportive of the communicative language teaching movement, it is significant to note pleas for a synthesis between mainstream communicative language teaching (‘L’ approaches) and others that emphasize emotional and psychical facets of the language learning experience and of teaching (cf. Stern 1981; Roberts 1982; Weideman 1986: 84ff.; Roberts 1983). This chapter has dealt with several such possible combinations, such as the natural approach and the strategic interaction method, as well as how these combinations can be used to influence positively and beneficially the designs of language teaching tasks for both the advanced and beginner sides of the learner competency spectrum. There are, of course, also disadvantages to such combinations, not the least of which is that teaching designs may harbor conflicting ideas of how learning takes place, or provide a conservative excuse for holding on to older designs.

Such a call for eclecticism may, however, paradoxically also be a sign of maturity, not of retrogression. According to Schuurman (1972: 386) the making of technical compromises discloses the true meaning of such work, since there is an analogy, an anticipation in such effort, of the meaning of justice: a compromise in this sense is indicative of technical justice in that a multiplicity of factors and individual opinions have to be considered and weighed before such a compromise is reached. It is in this sense, too, that at the outset of this debate, Roulet (1975: 84) spoke of a collaborative effort to reach consensus on the updating of learning and teaching methods. We return to a discussion of the merits of eclecticism in Chap. 9 below.

The usefulness of a model of language teaching can, and should, be measured also by other than linguistic and psychological considerations. Pedagogic and practical norms may even have to take precedence over theoretical, linguistic or psychological ones, which seems to be the reason why communicative language teaching could be practised with some measure of success before any theoretical justification was available or considered necessary. As a result, in the applied linguistic interventions which led to the further elaboration of this approach, a high degree of adaptability and flexibility has been maintained. I refer here to the many subsequent variants of the approach, such as task-based and content-based language instruction (Wesche and Skehan 2002; Dornyei and Kormos 2000), or Language for Specific Purposes (LSP), or Content and Language Integrated Learning (CLIL) (Lightbown and Spada 2006: 155ff.) as these are sometimes called on the other side of the Atlantic. For the sake of the focus of the argument these variants have so far been not been discussed and analyzed in any detail, yet they constitute important illustrations of the adaptability of design in CLT (cf. too Littlewood 2014). They also demonstrate some of the robustness of the motivations for and the ideas behind CLT, despite the patchy adoption of that on scale, or in reality, i.e. where traditional language teaching endures even in contexts where teachers profess to be teaching communicatively.

Of these latter variants of CLT, task-based language teaching (Larsen-Freeman and Anderson 2011: 149-163) stands out as a serious and influential contender for what counts as the mainstream of language teaching; Littlewood (2014: 319) has in fact called it the “new orthodoxy: ” Harking back to discussions of what counts as

‘authentic’ language use in the heydays of CLT, authenticity of language is indeed one of the hallmarks of task-based language teaching (Guariento and Morley 2001: 347; Skehan 2003: 3). Why this is so becomes clear when one looks at the other characteristics of a task, defined by Wesche and Skehan (2002: 217) as an activity promoting language learning

  • • in which meaning is primary, and
  • • through which communication must take place (as in other conventional CLT


  • • that has a link with real-word activities;
  • • and its completion has priority, t.a. because the success of its completion is

assessed by outcome(s).

Where in conventional CLT the bridging of an information gap characterizes the lingual interaction in the classroom, this is extended in task-based language teaching to what are called opinion gap and reasoning gap tasks (Larsen-Freeman and Anderson 2011: 158-159). The latter two are, however, clearly both classifiable as information gap tasks, and therefore may well be subsumed under that label, as further specifications of essentially the same category of task. The illustrations of the approach provided and discussed, for example, by Larsen-Freeman and Anderson (2011), show little real differences with CLT.

What does set task-based language teaching apart, however, is its presentation as a research-based approach to language teaching (Bygate et al. 2009: 495; also Van den Branden 2006: ix, 1, 16), and particularly as one that may be supported by some form of second language acquisition research (Van den Branden et al. 2009: 1). It is presented, too, as a possible design solution that has the potential to overcome the so-called form-focused teaching that diluted CLT and prevented it from adopting a truly functional perspective both on language and teaching (Van den Branden et al. 2009: 5). From the debate within task-based language teaching on what kind of emphasis is permissible in a language learning classroom on the structure and the form of language (Van den Branden et al. 2009: 6), it is evident, however, that this controversy threatens to undermine the initial intentions of the task-based offshoot of CLT as much as it inhibited the adoption of the innovations that CLT itself introduced and embodied. The reliance, furthermore, on research to point us in the right future direction (Van den Branden et al. 2009: 12) may make some observers speculate that task-based language teaching is not entirely immune to modernist inclinations. To be fair, though, its expectations in this regard are couched, as a rule, in cautious and humble terms. At least it is an approach in which openness to the new, and a readiness to experiment are promoted. Moreover, its confessed provisionality makes it a current, rather than a final, flourish in the ongoing design of language teaching.

The open-endedness in design that has been referred to as a hallmark of CLT, as broadly defined here, may of course lead to the approach being accused of a lack of coherence (which is in fact what happened, historically: cf. Johnson and Morrow 1981: v). Such a complaint is expectable in view of the history of applied linguistic designs that, before CLT, were strictly prescriptive and more often than not rigorous.

Such flexibility is, however, not be deplored, but to be applauded: it has freed second and foreign language teaching designs from the tyranny of an inflexible, ‘scientifically’ sanctioned blueprint, and has foregrounded for the applied linguist the imagination and creativity that lead to more adequate and more appropriate designs.

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