A Critical Look at The Communicative Approach

Michael Swan

During the last few years, under the influence of the ‘Communicative Approach’, language teaching seems to have made great progress. Syllabus design has become a good deal more sophisticated, and we are able to give our students a better and more complete picture than before of how language is used. In methodology, the change has been dramatic. The boring and mechanical exercise types have virtually disappeared, to be replaced by a splendid variety of exciting and engaging practice activities. All this is very positive, and it is not difficult to believe that such progress in course design has resulted in a real improvement in the speed and quality of language learning.

And yet . . . A dogma remains a dogma, and in this respect the ‘communicative revolution’ is little different from its predecessors in the language teaching field. Along with its many virtues, the Communicative Approach unfortunately has most of the typical vices of an intellectual revolution: it over-generalizes valid but limited insights until they become virtually meaningless; it makes exaggerated claims for the power and novelty of its doctrines; it misrepresents the currents of thought it has replaced; it is often characterized by serious intellectual confusion; it is choked with jargon.

In this article I propose to look critically at certain concepts which form part of the theoretical basis of the new orthodoxy, in an attempt to reduce the confusion which surrounds their use, and which unfortunately forms a serious obstacle to sensible communication in the field.

Meaning and use

A basic communicative doctrine is that earlier approaches to language teaching did not deal properly with meaning. According to the standard argument, it is not enough just to learn what is in the grammar and dictionary. There are (we are told) two levels of meaning in language: ‘usage’ and ‘use’, or ‘signification’ and ‘value’. Traditional courses, it appears, taught one of these kinds of meaning but neglected the other.

One of the major reasons for questioning the adequacy of grammatical syllabuses lies in the fact that even when we have described the grammatical (and lexical) meaning of a sentence, we have not accounted for the way it is used as an utterance . . . Since those things that are not conveyed by the grammar are also understood, they too must be governed by ‘rules’ which are known to both speaker and hearer. People who speak the same language share not so much a grammatical competence as a communicative competence. Looked at in foreign language teaching terms, this means that the learner has to learn rules of communication as well as rules of grammar. (Wilkins 1976:10,11) This line of argument is often illustrated by instances of utterances which clearly have one kind of ‘propositional’ meaning and a different kind of ‘function’. The coat example and the window example are popular. If you say ‘Your coat’s on the floor’ to a child, you are probably telling him or her to pick it up; a person who says ‘There’s a window open’ may really be asking for it to be closed. However, examples are not confined to requests masquerading as statements. All kinds of utterances, we are reminded, can express intentions which are not made explicit by the grammatical form in which the utterance is couched. . . this sentence (The policeman is crossing the road) might serve a number of communicative functions, depending on the contextual and/or situational circumstances in which it were used. Thus, it might take on the value of part of a commentary . . ., or it might serve as a warning or a threat, or some other act of communication. If it is the case that knowing a language means both knowing what signification sentences have as instances of language usage and what value they take on as instances of use, it seems clear that the teacher of language should be concerned with the teaching of both kinds of knowledge. (Widdowson 1978: 19) Put in general terms like this, the claim has a fine plausible ring to it-not least because of the impressive, if slightly confusing, terminology. There is of course nothing particularly novel about the two-level account of meaning given here. It has long been recognized that most language items are multipurpose tokens which take on their precise value from the context they are used in. What is perhaps more novel is the suggestion that the value of any utterance in a given situation can be specified by rules (‘rules of communication’ or ‘rules of use’), and that it is our business to teach these rules to our students. Neither Wilkins nor Widdowson makes it clear what form such rules might take, and so it is a little difficult to deal adequately with the argument. However, let us try to see what might be involved in a concrete instance. Widdowson asserts, effectively, that a student cannot properly interpret the utterance The policeman is crossing the road (or any other utterance, for that matter) if he knows only its propositional (structural and lexical) meaning. In order to grasp its real value in a specific situation, he must have learnt an additional rule about how the utterance can be used. Very well. For the sake of argument, let us imagine that an international team of burglars (Wilberforce, Gomez, Schmidt and Tanaka) are busy doing over a detached suburban house. Wilberforce is on watch. A policeman comes round the corner on the other side of the road. Wilberforce reports this to the others. Schmidt, who learnt his English from a communicatively oriented multi-media course in a university applied linguistics department, interprets this as a warning and turns pale. Gomez and Tanaka, who followed a more traditional course, totally fail to grasp the illocutionary force of Wilberforce’s remark. Believing him to be making a neutral comment on the external environment, they continue opening drawers. Suddenly Wilberforce blurts out, ‘The policeman is crossing the road’, and disappears through the back door, closely followed by Schmidt. Gomez and Tanaka move calmly to the wardrobe. They are caught and put away for five years. Two more victims of the structural syllabus. Although the argument about rules of use leads to some very extraordinary conclusions when applied to particular cases, it occurs repeatedly in the literature of the Communicative Approach, and there is no doubt that we are intended to take it literally. Here is Widdowson again, this time talking about language production, rather than comprehension. It is possible for someone to have learned a large number of sentence patterns and a large number of words which can fit into them without knowing how they are put to communicative use. (Widdowson 1978: 18, 19) Well, no doubt this can happen. But is it necessarily or normally the case? One of the few things I retain from a term’s study of a highly ‘structural’ Russian audio-lingual course is a pattern that goes something like this: Vot moy nomer; vot moy dom; vot moya kniga; and so on. I have done no Russian since, but I think I know when it is communicatively appropriate to say ‘This is my room’, ‘This is my house’, or ‘This is my book’ in that language, or most others. (And if I don’t, it is not a communicative Russian course that I need; it is expert help of a rather different kind.) Here is a final example of the ‘usage/use’ assertion; this time the term ‘use potential’ is introduced. Not until he (the learner) has had experience of the language he is learning as use will he be able to recognize use potential. (Widdowson 1978: 118) I have just looked up the Swedish for ‘Something is wrong with the gearbox’ in a motorist’s phrase-book. It is (if my book is to be trusted) ‘Någonting stämmer inte med växellåda’. I have no experience of Swedish ‘as use’. However, I am prepared to hazard a guess that this expression’s use potential is more likely to be realized in a garage than, for instance, in a doctor’s surgery or a laundry (though of course one can never be certain about these things). I would also guess that this is true of the equivalent expression in Spanish, Tagalog, Melanesian pidgin, or any language whatever. And I know this, not because I am an exceptionally intuitive linguist, but because the fact in question is not just a fact about Swedish, or about language – it is a fact about the world, and the things we say about the world. A linguist may need, for his or her own purposes, to state explicitly that conversations about cars are likely to take place in garages, or that while ‘The rain destroyed the crops’ is a correct example of English usage, it is not an appropriate answer to the question, ‘Where is the station?’ But to suggest that this kind of information should form part of a foreign-language teaching syllabus is to misunderstand quite radically the distinction between thought and language. Foreigners have mother tongues: they know as much as we do about how human beings communicate. The ‘rules of use’ that determine how we interpret utterances such as Widdowson’s sentence about the policeman are mostly non-language-specific, and amount to little more than the operation of experience and common sense. The precise value of an utterance is given by the interaction of its structural and lexical meaning with the situation in which it is used. If you are burgling a house, a report of a policeman’s approach naturally takes on the function of a threat or a warning – not because of any linguistic ‘rule of communication’ that can be applied to the utterance, but because policemen threaten the peace of mind of thieves. If you indicate that you are hungry, the words ‘There’s some stew in the fridge’ are likely to constitute an offer, not because you have learnt a rule about the way these words can be used, but simply because the utterance most plausibly takes on that value in that situation. Of course, cultures differ somewhat in their behaviour, and these differences are reflected in language. Although most utterances will retain their value across language boundaries (if correctly translated), problems will arise in specific and limited cases. For instance, there may be languages where all requests are marked as such (perhaps by a special particle or intonation pattern), so that a simple unmarked statement such as ‘There’s a window open’ cannot in these languages function as a request. Speakers of such languages who study English (and English-speaking students of these languages) will need contrastive information about this particular point if they are to understand or speak correctly. Again, there are phrases and sentences in any language which conventionally carry intentional meanings that are not evident from their form. (English questions beginning ‘Where’s my . . .?’ often function as demands; ‘Look here!’ is an expostulation; ‘Why should I?’ is not a simple request for information.) However, both the contrastive and the idiomatic aspects of language use have already received a good deal ofattention in the past. Although the Communicative Approach may have some new information and insights to contribute (for instance about the language of social interaction), there is nothing here to justify the announcement that we need to adopt a whole new approach to the teaching of meaning. The argument about ‘usage’ and ‘use’, whatever value it may have for philosophers, has little relevance to foreign language teaching. A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1) 5 In a recent paper, Wilkins makes it clear that he has now come round to this kind of view. It seems reasonable to assume that the relation of linguistic and pragmatic features that we have referred to here is characteristic of all languages. If we consider second language learners, therefore, it appears that although there will be values, attitudes, norms and even types of information that are culturally restricted and consequently not known to the learners, they will be aware that such a relation does exist in principle and that much in their previous experience will remain relevant in the second language. What the learners have to learn is less that there is a connection between language and context than the forms and meanings of the second language itself, together with whatever differences there are in the society that might affect the operation of the pragmatic element in communication. The learners will also know that if they can convey the meanings that they wish, even without making their intentions (i.e. illocutionary forces) explicit, the hearer has the capacity to make appropriate inferences . . . Provided one understands the meaning of the sentences, in the nature of things one has every chance of recognizing the speaker’s intention. (Wilkins 1983:31)

Appropriacy The argument about a second level of meaning often surfaces in a slightly different form involving the concept of ‘appropriacy’. This is the notion that our choice of language is crucially determined by the setting in which the language is used, the speaker’s relationship with the listener, and similar matters. So important is this (we are often told) that appropriacy is the real goal of language teaching. What we want to do through language is affected by (the) relationship of (the) speakers, setting etc. Grammar and lexis are only a small part of this. (Alexander 1977) Structural dialogues lack communicative intent and you cannot identify what communicative operations the learner can engage in as a result of practice. The result of purely structural practice is the ability to produce a range of usages, but not the ability to use forms appropriately. This is true even in cases where it looks as ifcommunication is being taught. For example, the exclamation form ‘What a lovely day’ might be covered. But the interest is in the form, not on when and where to use it or what you achieve by using it. (Scott 1981:70, 71) Nobody would deny that there are language items that are appropriate only in certain situations, or (conversely) that there are situations in which only certain ways of expressing oneself are appropriate. English notoriously has a wealth of colloquial, slang, and taboo expressions, for instance, whose use is regulated by complex restrictions. In French, it is not easy to learn exactly whom to address by the second person singular. Getting people to do things for you is a delicate business in most cultures, and this tends to be reflected in the complexity of the relevant linguistic rules. Although there is nothing particularly controversial or novel about this, it is an area where the Communicative Approach (with its interest in the language of interaction) has contributed a good deal to the coverage of our teaching. We must understand, however, that ‘appropriacy’ is one aspect among many-an important corner oflinguistic description, but not by any means a feature of the language as a whole. ‘Appropriacy’ is not a new dimension Michael Swan of meaning, to be added everywhere to lexical and structural meaning. It is a category that applies to certain items only: the same kind of thing as ‘animate’, ‘countable’, or ‘transitive’. Items such as the imperative, had better, bloody, I want, get are marked for appropriacy in one way or the other; students have to be careful how they use them. But most items are not so marked. The past tense, for instance, or the words table, design, blue, slowly, natural, or the expression to fill in a form, or the sentence She was born in 1910 – these items, and the vast majority of the other words, expressions, and sentences of the language, are unmarked for social or situational appropriacy of the kind under discussion. Consequently they cause the learner no special problems in this area. What has happened here might be called the ‘new toy’ effect. A limited but valuable insight has been over-generalized, and is presented as if it applied to the whole of language and all of language teaching. Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence in the communication sciences. Interestingly, the discussion of appropriacy often obscures a perfectly valid point about the need for increased attention to the teaching of lexis. We might begin our consideration of communicative language teaching … by looking at the discontent which teachers and applied linguists in the 1960s felt towards the kind of language teaching then predominant. This discontent is vividly expressed by Newmark . . ., who speaks of the ‘structurally competent’ student – the one, that is, who has developed the ability to produce grammatically correct sentences – yet who is unable to perform a simple communicative task. His example of such a task is ‘asking for a light from a stranger’. Our structurally competent student might perform this task in a perfectly grammatical way by saying ‘have you fire?’ or ‘do you have illumination’ or ‘are you a match’s owner?’ (Newmark’s examples). Yet none of these ways – however grammatical they may be – would be used by the native speaker. Most of us are familiar with this phenomenon of the structurally competent but communicatively incompetent student, and he bears striking witness to the truth of the one insight which, perhaps more than any other, has shaped recent trends in language teaching. This is the insight that the ability to manipulate the structures of the language correctly is only a part of what is involved in learning a language. There is a ‘something else’ that needs to be learned, and this ‘something else’ involves the ability to be appropriate, to know the right thing to say at the right time. ‘There are’, in Hymes’s . . . words, ‘rules of use without which the rules of grammar would be useless’. (Johnson 1981:1, 2) Now the ‘structurally competent but communicatively incompetent student’ pictured here certainly has a problem, but it is quite unnecessary to invoke nebulous abstractions such as ‘appropriacy’ or ‘rules of use’ to account for it. Newmark’s student doesn’t know enough vocabulary. He may be structurally competent, but he has not been taught enough lexis. He is unaware of the exact range of meaning of the word fire (and perhaps thinks it can be used in all cases as an equivalent of feu or Feuer); he does not know the expression a light; he is (implausibly) confused about the meaning of illumination; he has not learnt the conventional phrase used for requesting a light. These are all lexical matters, and all the information the student lacks can be found in a respectable dictionary. It is perfectly true that ‘the ability to manipulate the structures of the language correctly is only a part of what is involved in learning a language’, and that there is a ‘something A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1) 7 else’ that needs to be learned. This something else, however, is primarily vocabulary, and the Communicative Approach can hardly take credit for the ‘insight’ that language contains words and phrases as well as structures. The teaching of lexis has certainly been greatly improved by the recent concern with communicative competence. Teachers and course designers are more aware than before of the vast range of conventional and idiomatic expressions that have to be learnt if a student is to be able to perform ordinary communicative tasks (such as saying she has been cut off on the phone, asking a petrol pump attendant to check his tyre pressures, or indeed asking a stranger for a light). If we are now adopting a more informed and systematic approach to vocabulary teaching, that is all to the good. But we should understand clearly that this is what we are doing. Inappropriate references to appropriacy merely confuse the issue. Skills end strategies Discussion of language skills is no longer limited to a consideration of the four basic activities of reading, writing, understanding speech? and speaking. We are more inclined nowadays to think in terms of the various specific types of behaviour that occur when people are producing or understanding language for a particular purpose in a particular situation, and there has been something of a proliferation of sub-skills and strategies in recent teaching materials. As we have seen, it is often taken for granted that language learners cannot transfer communication skills from their mother tongues, and that these must be taught anew if the learners are to solve the ‘problem of code and context correlation which lies at the heart of the communicative ability’ (Widdowson 1978:87-8). If, for instance, there is a special ‘comprehension skill’ involved in interpreting messages, then surely (it is claimed) we had better teach this skill to our students. Otherwise they will ‘comprehend’ the words they ‘hear’ as examples of ‘usage’, but will fail to ‘listen’ and ‘interpret’ messages as instances of ‘use’; they will respond to ‘cohesion’ but not to ‘coherence’, and so on (Widdowson 1978 passim). (One of the most bizarre features of current terminology is the deliberate use of pairs of virtually indistinguishable words to illustrate allegedly vital distinctions. Faced with terms like ‘use’ and ‘usage’ or ‘cohesion’ and ‘coherence’, one really finds it extraordinarily difficult to remember which is which.) One of the comprehension skills which we now teach foreigners is that of predicting. It has been observed that native listeners/readers make all sorts ofpredictions about the nature of what they are about to hear or read, based on their knowledge of the subject, their familiarity with the speaker or writer, and other relevant features. Armed with this linguistic insight (and reluctant to believe that foreigners, too, can predict), we ‘train’ students in ‘predictive strategies’. (For instance, we ask them to guess what is coming next and then let them see if they were right or wrong.) But I would suggest that if a foreigner knows something about the subject matter, and something about the speaker or writer, and if he knows enough of the language, then the foreigner is just as likely as the native speaker to predict what will be said. And if he predicts badly in a real-life comprehension task (classroom tasks are different), it can only be for one of two reasons. Either he lacks essential background knowledge (of the subject matter or the interactional context), or his command of the language is not good enough. In the one case he needs information, in the other he needs language lessons. In neither case does it make sense to talk about having to teach some kind of ‘strategy’. Michael Swan Another strategy which we are encouraged to teach is that of ‘negotiating meaning’. . . speakers and writers perform an unconscious guessing game, because they have to establish what the agreed goals are (and this is not always clear, especially at the beginning of the conversation), as well as how much knowledge, or past experience, or understanding is shared. Thus if you ask me where I live, I may answer ‘Britain’ or ‘London’ or ‘Surrey’, or the name of the exact road, depending on why I think you asked me and how well I think you know south-east England. If I answer ‘London’ and you answer ‘Whereabouts in London?’ you are telling me that you want more specific information: we are negotiating about the purpose of the conversation, for you are showing that you really want to know, rather than just making a general social enquiry. . . . It needs to be emphasized that everyone, in any language, needs to develop the skills of adjustment and negotiation. (Brumfit 1981:6, 7) The point is not always made with such unpretentious clarity. The shift towards a balance between form and function has had important methodological effects. If we see language as one part of wider social interaction and behaviour, deriving its communicative value from it, then we are compelled to introduce the process of interaction into the classroom. Learners now need to be trained and refined in the interpretive and expressive strategies of making sense amid a negotiable reality where the ground rules for understanding what partners mean are not pre-set entirely, nor unequivocal. In fact, learners have to come to cope with the essential problem of communication – to acquire the mutually negotiated and dynamic conventions which give value to formal signs. They have to learn how to agree conventions and procedures, for the interpretation of non-verbal and verbal language, with which they temporarily abide. (Candlin 1981:25) Now this is very impressive, but it is simply not true. Language learners already know, in general, how to negotiate meaning. They have been doing it all their lives. What they do not know is what words are used to do it in a foreign language. They need lexical items, not skills: expressions like ‘What do you mean by. . .?‘, ‘Look at it this way’, ‘Whereabouts do you mean?‘, ‘I beg your pardon’, or ‘No, that’s not what I’m trying to say’. Of course, there will be cases where the mother-tongue and the foreign language differ in the detailed approach used for negotiation. Where this happens, we need to know specifics – at what point, and for what purpose, does language X operate a different convention from language Y? (Perhaps in language X it is rude to ask somebody what she means, for instance.) Such specifics can be incorporated in teaching programmes for speakers or learners of language X, and this can be very valuable. But in general there is not the least need to teach our students ‘the interpretive and expressive strategies of making sense amid a negotiable reality’, even assuming that we were able to define what this involves. And to talk in these terms contributes nothing whatever to our understanding of how to teach foreign languages. Guessing, too, is something which learners are apparently unable to do outside their mother tongue. Clearly training in making intelligent guesses will play an important part in learning to understand the spoken form of a foreign language. (Brown 1977:162) A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1) 9 10 Assertions like this regularly pass unchallenged at conferences. As one reads the quotation, one is inclined to nod in automatic assent from force of habit: the sentiment is so familiar, so much part of the accepted orthodoxy. And yet, why should language students need training in making intelligent guesses? Are they less intelligent people, less good at guessing, than other groups in the population. ? Than language teachers, for instance? Is there any reason at all to suppose that they do not already possess this skill? And if they possess it, do we have any real evidence that they cannot in general apply it to learning a foreign language? And if we do not have such evidence, what are we doing setting out to teach people something they can do already? Most of the readers of this journal can probably understand the spoken form of a foreign language to some extent at least. How many of them have received systematic training in making intelligent guesses in the language in question? It can happen, of course, that a learner has difficulty in transferring a skill from his or her mother tongue to the foreign language, especially in the early days of language learning. When this happens (as it can with comprehension skills), it may be worth giving specific practice in the ‘blocked’ skill in question. However, we need to know why the skill is blocked. If a learner seems to be understanding most of the words he or she hears but not really grasping the message (not seeing the wood for the trees), this may simply be due to anxiety. More often, perhaps, it is a matter of overloadthe learner’s command of the language is just fluent enough for him to decode the words, but this occupies all his faculties and he has no processing capacity to spare for ‘interpreting’ what he hears. The problem will go away with increased fluency; practice in ‘global’ comprehension may appear to go well and may increase the student’s confidence, but I doubt whether a great deal can really be done to accelerate the natural progression of this aspect of learning. At higher levels, students may perform badly at classroom comprehension tasks (failing to make sense of texts that are well within their grasp) simply because of lack of interest; or because they have been trained to read classroom texts in such a different way from ‘real life’ texts that they are unable to regard them as pieces of communication. Here the problem is caused by poor methodology, and the solution involves changing what happens in the classroom, not what happens in the student. We cannot assume without further evidence that students lack comprehension strategies, simply because they have trouble jumping through the hoops that we set up for them. This ‘tabula rasa’ attitude – the belief that students do not possess, or cannot transfer from their mother tongue, normal communication skills – is one of two complementary fallacies that characterize the Communicative Approach. The other is the ‘whole-system’ fallacy. This arises when the linguist, over-excited about his or her analysis of a piece of language or behaviour, sets out to teach everything that has been observed (often including the metalanguage used to describe the phenomena), without stopping to ask how much of the teaching is (a) new to the students and (b) relevant to their needs. Both fallacies are well illustrated in the following exercise (Figure 1). It will be observed: (a) that the purpose of the exercise, as stated, is to develop ‘conversational strategies’ (a therapeutic procedure which might seem more relevant to the teaching of psycho-social disorders than to language instruction); (b) that students are taught a piece of discourse analysis and its metalanguage; and (c) that the actual English language input seems to be the least important part of the exercise – it is in Michael Swan r Counter the Object Play down the Agree objection again argument far. in under an enthusiam. orecise All right. See you then. a POP festival on Saturday. Do you fancy coming ? Where is if ? Oh, in Essex, that,s not far. We can be there in under an ‘hour. – That’s great. Let’s say we meet? Fix a date. 1 iime. 1 better. k Figure 1: A ‘discourse chain’ from an experimental teaching unit ‘I wanna have fun’ by Ulrich Grewer and Terry Moston, first published in the Protokoll of the 7th Meeting of the Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Englisch an Gesamtschulen: ‘Teaching Kits, Discourse Structure and Exercise Typologies’, Hessen State Institute for Teacher In-Service Training, Kassel-Fuldatal (1975); reprinted in Candlin (1981) and reproduced here by permission of the publisher. fact by no means clear what language teaching is going on here, if any at all. Exercises like this treat the learner as a sort of linguistically gifted idiot – somebody who knows enough language to express the (quite complex) ideas involved, but who somehow cannot put the ideas together without help. Normal students, of course, have the opposite problem: they know what they want to say more often than they know how to say it. Conclusion I have argued that the ‘communicative’ theory of meaning and use, in so far as it makes sense, is largely irrelevant to foreign language teaching. These considerations may seem somewhat over-theoretical. ‘After all,’ it might be objected, ‘what does it matter if the theory doesn’t really stand up? Theories about language teaching never do. The important thing is that students should be exposed to appropriate samples of language and given relevant and motivating activities to help them learn. This is what the Communicative Approach does.’ I think there is something in this, and I should certainly not wish to condemn the Communicative Approach out of hand because its philosophy is confused. No doubt its heart is in the right place, and in some ways it has done us a lot of good. But theoretical confusion can lead to practical inefficiency, and this can do a lot of harm, with time and effort being wasted on unprofitable activities while important priorities are ignored. In the second of these articles I shall focus more closely on these practical issues, considering in particular the validity of the ‘notionalfunctional syllabus’, the question of authentic materials, and the ‘real life’ fallacy in communicative methodology. • Received March 1984 A critical look at the Communicative Approach (1) 11 References Alexander, L. 1977. Handout for seminar at the British Council, Paris. Brumfit, C. J. 1981. ‘Accuracy and fluency.’ Practical English Teaching 1/3. Candlin, C. (ed.). 1981. The Communicative Teaching of English. London: Longman. Johnson, K. 1981. Introduction to Johnson and Morrow (eds.). 1981. Johnson, K. and K. Morrow (eds.). 1981. Communication in the Classroom. London: Longman. Scott, R. 1981. ‘Speaking’ in Johnson and Morrow (eds.). 1981. Widdowson, H. G. 1978. Teaching Language as Communination. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Wilkins, D. 1976. Notional SyllabuseThere is nothing so creative as a good dogma. During the last few years, under the influence of the ‘Communicative Approach’, language teaching seems to have made great progress. Syllabus design has become a good deal more sophisticated, and we are able to give our students a better and more complete picture than before of how language is used. In methodology, the change has been dramatic. The boring and mechanical exercise types which were so common ten or fifteen years ago have virtually disappeared, to be replaced by a splendid variety of exciting and engaging practice activities. All this is very positive, and it is not difficult to believe that such progress in course design has resulted in a real improvement in the speed and quality of language learning. And yet . . . A dogma remains a dogma, and in this respect the ‘communicative revolution’ is little different from its predecessors in the language teaching field. If one reads through the standard books and articles on the communicative teaching of English, one finds assertions about language use and language learning falling like leaves in autumn; facts, on the other hand, tend to be remarkably thin on the ground. Along with its many virtues, the Communicative Approach unfortunately has most of the typical vices of an intellectual revolution: it over-generalizes valid but limited insights until they become virtually meaningless; it makes exaggerated claims for the power and novelty of its doctrines; it misrepresents the currents of thought it has replaced; it is often characterized by serious intellectual confusion; it is choked with jargon. In this article I propose to look critically at certain concepts which form part of the theoretical basis of the new orthodoxy, in an attempt to reduce the confusion which surrounds their use, and which unfortunately forms a serious obstacle to sensible communication in the field. I shall discuss in particular: (1) the idea of a ‘double level of meaning’ associated with such terms as ‘rules of use’ and ‘rules of communication’, and the related concept of ‘appropriacy’; and (2) some confusions regardin


‘An English boy who has been through a good middle-class school in England can talk to a Frenchman, slowly and with difficulty, about female gardeners and aunts; conversation which, to a man possessed of neither, is liable to pall. Possibly, if he be a bright exception, he may be able to tell the time, or make a few guarded observations concerning the weather. No doubt he could repeat a goodly number of irregular verbs by heart; only, as a matter of fact, few foreigners care to listen to their own irregular verbs, recited by young Englishmen . . . And then, when the proud parent takes his son and heir to Dieppe merely to discover that the lad does not know enough to call a cab, he abuses not the system but the innocent victim.’ (Jerome 1900). Jerome K. Jerome was neither the first nor the last to observe that the language courses of his day were inefficient, or to propose ways of improving them. The learner who has studied the language for seven years, but who cannot ask for a glass of water, a cab, or a light for a cigarette, is regularly brought on to the stage to justify demands for a radical change in our approach to language teaching. Jerome’s recommendations for reform were: more time, better qualified teachers, better coursebooks, a more serious attitude to language learning, and the application of common sense to education. These are modest, practical suggestions, but of course Jerome had no knowledge of linguistics. He would scarcely have expressed himself in such down-market terms if he had been writing today, with the benefit of an M.A. course in one of our better applied linguistics departments. Jerome would more probably have complained that his school-leaver knew grammar and words, but could not use them appropriately; could not express everyday notions, or perform basic communicative functions; lacked productive and receptive skills and strategies; was unable to negotiate meaning successfully: had learnt language on the level of usage rather than use; created text that was cohesive but not coherent; was not successful in relating code to context; and in general lacked communicative competence? which he could best acquire by following a good communicative course based on a scientific needs analysis. On the whole, I think I prefer the original formulation. The communicative Defective language learning is often attributed to defective syllabus design: syllabus the student does not learn the language properly because we do not teach the right things, or because we organize what we teach in the wrong way. Recently the attention of linguists has been focused on meaning, and it has come to be widely believed that the secret of successful language teaching lies in incorporating meaning properly into our syllabuses. We can perhaps distinguish four common versions of this belief: a. ‘Older language courses taught forms, but did not teach what the forms meant or how to use them. We now do this.’ b. ‘Older language courses taught one kind of meaning (that found in the grammar and dictionary), but did not teach another kind (the communicative value that utterances actually have in real-life exchanges). It is this second kind that we really need to teach.’ c. ‘Older language courses failed to teach students how to express or do certain things with language. We must incorporate these things (notions, functions, strategies) into our syllabuses.’ d. ‘Even if older structure-based language courses taught meanings as well as forms, they did so very untidily and inefficiently. A communicative syllabus approaches the teaching of meaning systematically.’ The first version (a) is no longer as common as it used to be, and it is not really worth wasting time on. I have discussed version (b) at length in a previous article (Swan 1985), in which I argue that the kind of meaning referred to (‘rules of use’) does not need to be taught, and cannot in any case be codified. Here I should like to deal principally with the issues raised by versions (c) and (d). Meaning in older Traditional structure-based courses have had a bad press. Current mytholcourses ogy not withstanding, they did not systematically neglect the teaching of functions, notions, and skills. Older courses may indeed have failed to teach people to do some important things with language, and more modern materials, whose authors have access to checklists of communicative functions; have plugged a number of gaps. It is also true that many traditional courses adopted a very mechanical approach to drilling what was taughtthat is to say, meaning was often neglected during the practice phase of a lesson. Nonetheless, it is quite false to represent older courses as concentrating throughout on form at the expense of meaning, or as failing to teach people to ‘do things with language’. I have in front of me a copy of a typical structure-based beginners’ course of the 1960s (Candlin 1968). The course has many of the typical defects of books of its generation (though these may seem greater to us, with our sharpened hindsight and different priorities, than they did to its users). However, by the end of Lesson 8, students have been shown perfectly adequate ways of performing the following language functions: greeting, enquiring about health, leavetaking, thanking, expressing regret, eliciting and giving information, offering, requesting goods and services, proffering, self-identification, asking for more precise information, confirming what has been said, exhortation, identifying and naming, describing, narrating, giving informal instructions, agreeing to carry out instructions, and enquiring about plans. A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2) 77 78 ‘Semantico-grammatical categories’ are not neglected: students learn to talk about place and direction, to refer to states and processes, to describe past, present, and future events, to express concepts related to quantification, and so on. (In other words, they learn prepositions, verb tenses, singular and plural forms, etc. Structures have meanings, and traditional courses usually made a reasonable job of teaching them.) And of course the book provides a year’s work on lexis – words and expressions are taught, and the notions associated with them are on the whole clearly demonstrated. Finally, the course (like many of its kind) uses the meaning category of situation as an organizing principle. Even if each lesson is designed to teach a specific structural point, it sets out at the same time to teach the language that is appropriate to a common situation. Present-Day English (like any book of its generation) does in fact have a quite clear and carefully worked out semantic syllabus. There are perhaps reasons why one might not wish to teach from this book, but it should not be accused of failing to deal properly with meaning. Putting meaning first For many people, the central idea in ‘communicative’ teaching is probably that of a ‘semantic syllabus’. In a course based on a semantic syllabus, it is meanings rather than structures which are given priority, and which form the organizing principle or ‘skeleton’ of the textbook. Lessons deal with such matters as ‘greeting’, ‘agreeing and disagreeing’, ‘comparison’, ‘warning’, ‘point of time’, and so on. So we do not (for example) give a lesson on the comparative forms of adjectives, but on a notion such as that of relative size or degree, which may be expressed not only by using comparative adjectives but also in many other ways. In the bad old courses, where grammar was tidy and meanings untidy, students might learn comparative adjectives in June and the as … as structure the following February; they were never able to put together the various items they needed to express fully the notion in question. With a semantic syllabus, items which belong together semantically are taught together, even if they are structurally quite diverse. The problem with this approach is obvious to anybody who has recently taught a beginners’ class. Unfortunately, grammar has not become any easier to learn since the communicative revolution. If we set out to give a lesson to elementary students on the notion of relative degree, we are likely to run into difficulty straight away, for two reasons. First of all, the main syntactic patterns involved are complex (us tall us, taller than, less tall than, not so/as tall us, etc.), and if they are presented all together the students will probably mix them up, confusing us and than and so on. And secondly, it is not at all obvious to a learner how to form the comparatives of English adjectives: the rules are complicated, and can hardly be picked up in passing in the course of a notion-based lesson which introduces several other structural points at the same time. Experienced teachers often like to isolate and practise difficult structures (such as comparative adjectives) before combining them with others in realistic communicative work. They have excellent reasons for doing so. Language is not only a set of formal systems, but it is a set ofsystems, and it is perverse not to focus on questions of form when this is desirable. Some points of grammar are difficult to learn, and need to be studied in isolation before students can do interesting things with them. It is no use making meaning tidy if grammar then becomes so untidy that it cannot be learnt properly. As Brumfit points out in his review of Wilkins’s Notional Syllabuses, Michael Swan the teaching of functions and notions cannot replace the teaching of grammar. ‘The point about the grammatical system is that a limited and describable number of rules enable the learner to generate an enormous range of utterances which are usable, in combination with paralinguistic and semiotic systems, to express any function. To ask learners to learn a list instead of a system goes against everything we know about learning theory’ (Brumfit 1978). Structural versus We really need to question the whole idea that one syllabus, whether functional: a false structural or functional, should be ‘privileged’, acting as the framework on dichotomy which a whole course is built. Language courses involve far too many components, and the relationships between the components are far too complex, for us to be able to subordinate everything to a tidy progression of structures, functions, notions, or anything else. When deciding what to teach to a particular group of learners, we need to take into consideration several different meaning categories and several different formal categories. We must make sure that our students are taught to operate key functions such as, for instance, greeting, agreeing, or warning; to talk about basic notions such as size, definiteness, texture or ways ofmoving; to communicate appropriately in specific situations (for instance in shops, on the telephone, at meetings); to discuss the topics which correspond to their main interests and needs (for example tourism, merchant banking, football, physics). At the same time, we shall need to draw up lists ofphonological problems which will need attention; of high-priority structures, and of the vocabulary which our students will need to learn. In addition, we must think about performance as well as competence: we will need a syllabus of skills, to make sure that our students are trained to become fluent in whatever aspects of speaking, understanding, reading, and writing relate to their purposes. Rather than taking either meanings or forms as our starting point, therefore, we really need to look at the language from two directions at once, asking both ‘What words and structures are needed to express meaning X?’ (semantic syllabuses) and ‘What meanings do we need to teach for word Y or structure Z?’ (formal syllabuses). At first sight, it might seem as if semantic syllabuses and formal syllabuses ought ultimately to cover the same ground (so that if we have one we can do without the other). After all, if we have listed the meanings we want our students to express, and worked out what structures, words, and expressions are used to convey these meanings, this should surely provide us with a list of all the forms we need to teach, and it ought therefore to be unnecessary to list the forms separately. It is important to realize that this is not the case. First of all, semantic syllabuses tend to list only items that are specifically related to the functions or notions included in the syllabus. More ‘generalpurpose’ items slip through the net. If we make a list of high-priority functions and notions and write down all the words and expressions that are needed to handle them, there is no guarantee that we will include, for instance, the words umbrella, control, move or rough. These words are, however, common and important, and will need to be included in most intermediate courses. To be sure of plugging gaps of this kind, we shall need to refer to a traditional lexical syllabus based on word-frequency. The same is true of structures. Grammar items that do not have an easily identifiable ‘meaning’ (such as points of word order) tend to get left out of notional syllabuses, though they may be of great importance for the correct learning of the language. A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2) 79 Secondly, and conversely, traditional structural/lexical syllabuses are not very good at catching sentence-length idioms and conventional expressions such as ‘Can I just break in here?’ or ‘I’d like to make a reversed charge call’. They may also fail to pick up special uses of ‘standard’ structures which are important for the expression of certain functions: for instance, the English use of the co-ordinate structure in threats (‘Do that again and I’m going home’). To be sure of getting such items into our teaching programme, we need to look at lists of functions and notions and their exponents. It is, therefore, essential to consider both semantic and formal accounts of the language when deciding what to teach. Failure to do so will result in serious omissions on one side or the other. (There is a well known and deservedly popular ‘communicative’ beginners’ course which gets through a whole year’s work without teaching the names of the colours or the basic use of the verb have.) The real issue is not which syllabus to put first: it is how to integrate eight or so syllabuses (functional, notional, situational, topic, phonological, lexical, structural, skills) into a sensible teaching programme. Integrating semantic In discussions of communicative teaching, a good deal of confusion is and formal syllabuses caused by invalid generalizations. For instance, people often talk as if language courses had much the same shape at all levels from beginners’ to advanced. In fact, the relative importance of the various syllabuses, and especially of the grammar component, varies crucially with level. It is fashionable to criticize old-style courses for being excessively concerned with teaching structure, and there is certainly some truth in the criticism. But it really applies only to lower-level courses (where grammar must in any case get a good deal of attention, even if this can easily go too far). At more advanced levels language textbooks have rarely given very much space to grammar: more typical concerns have traditionally been vocabulary-building, the teaching of reading and writing skills, literature and other ‘cultural’ matters, and the encouragement of discussion. Equally, the role of ‘grammar’ in language courses is often discussed as if ‘grammar’ were one homogeneous kind of thing. In fact, ‘grammar’ is an umbrella term for a large number of separate or loosely related language systems, which are so varied in nature that it is pointless to talk as if they should all be approached in the same way. How we integrate the teaching of structure and meaning will depend to a great extent on the particular language items involved. Some structural points present difficulties of form as well as meaning (for example interrogative and negative structures; comparison of adjectives; word order in phrasal verbs). As I have already suggested, it may be best to deal with such problems of form before students do communicative work on notions or functions in which they will have to mix these structures with others. Other grammar points are less problematic, and can be taught simultaneously with work on a relevant notion or function. (For instance, students might learn to use can in the context of a lesson on offering, or requesting, or talking about ability, ease and difficulty.) Some functions and notions may be expressible entirely through structures which are already known: if students have learnt imperatives and simple if-clauses, and if they can make basic co-ordinate sentences, then they are already in a position to give warnings. Yet other functions and notions are expressed mainly through lexis, with no special grammatical 80 Michael Swan considerations of any importance (for instance greeting, leave-taking, thanking, speed, size). How we organize a given lesson will therefore depend very much on the specific point we want to teach. A good language course is likely to include lessons which concentrate on particular structures, lessons which deal with areas of vocabulary, lessons on functions, situation-based lessons, pronunciation lessons, lessons on productive and receptive skills, and several other kinds of component. Many lessons will deal with more than one of these things at the same time. Designing a language course involves reconciling a large number of different and often conflicting priorities, and it is of little use to take one aspect of the language (structures, notions/functions, or anything else) and to use this systematically as a framework for the whole of one’s teaching. The importance of There is a certain air of unreality about the whole ‘structural/notional’ vocabulary debate. Assertions which look plausible and persuasive when they are presented in general terms (‘We should teach units of communication, not structures’) tend to dissolve and become meaningless when one tries to apply them to specific cases. Part of the trouble is perhaps that pragmatics (the study of what we do with language) is grossly over-valued at the moment, in the same way as grammar has been over-valued in the past. The ‘new toy’ effect is leading us to look at everything in functional terms: we see the whole of our job as being to teach students to convey and elicit information, to describe, to define, to exercise and elicit social control, to express approval, make requests, establish rapport, warn, apologize, and the rest of it. It is important to remember two things. First of all, these functional categories are not themselves the names of things that have to be taught (though they may help to define how we organize what we teach). Students can already convey information, define, apologize and so on-what they need to learn is how to do these things in English. And secondly, when we have taught students what they need to know in order to carry out the main communicative functions, we still have most of the language left to teach. Students not only have to learn how information is conveyed or elicited, or how requests are made: they also have to learn the words and expressions which are used to refer to the things in the world they want to talk about, ask about or request. However good a lesson on the function ofwarning may be, it will not in itselfenable students to say ‘Look out-the top half of the ladder isn’t properly fixed on’. Functions without lexis are no better than structures without lexis. And referential lexis is a vast field-it certainly makes up the bulk of the learning load in any general-purpose language course. Stereotyped and An earlier linguistic school saw language use as being largely a matter of creative language convention, involving a set ofpredictable responses to recurrent situations. Although this view of language is discredited, it is not so much wrong as only partially correct. A great deal of language does involve knowing what is conventionally said in familiar situations-interrupting, asking for a light, complimenting, leave-taking, buying stamps, correcting oneself and so on. This stereotyped, idiomatic side of language accounts for a substantial proportion of the things we say, and this is the area with which the Communicative Approach is perhaps mainly concerned, investigating the meanings we most often express and tabulating (in semantic syllabuses) the ways in which we conventionally express them. (For all its attention to A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2) 81 82 meaning, the Communicative Approach has a strong behaviourist streak.) Not all language, of course, is stereotyped. Since Chomsky’s ideas became widely known, we have become accustomed to seeing language as something that makes infinite (or at least indefinitely large) use of finite resources. As O’Neill points out in his article ‘My guinea pig died with its legs crossed’ (O’Neill 1977), most utterances are not conventional responses to familiar situations. Students need to learn to say new things as well as old things. A learner of English may need to be able to say ‘Could you check the tyre pressures?‘; but he or she may also find it necessary to say ‘The car makes a funny noise every time I go round a left-hand bend’, or ‘I nearly ran over a policeman just by the place where we had that awful meal with your hairdresser’s boyfriend’. Sentences like these are not predicted by any kind of semantic syllabus; they can be generated only by constructing sentences out of lexical and grammatical building blocks in accordance with the various rules of phrase and sentence construction. Simplifying somewhat, one might say that there are two kinds of language: ‘stereotyped’ and ‘creative’. Semantic syllabuses are needed to help us teach the first; only structural/lexical syllabuses will enable us to teach the second. Methodology Teachers usually feel guilty about something: translating, or explaining The ‘real-life’ fallacy grammar, or standing up in front of the class and behaving like teachers, or engaging in some other activity that is temporarily out offavour. Currently teachers feel guilty about not being communicative. Mechanical structure practice is out: it would be a brave trainee teacher who used a substitution table in his or her RSA practical exam. 1 Language work, we are told, should involve genuine exchanges, and classroom discourse should correspond as closely as possible to real-life use oflanguage. Old-style courses, it appears, failed to take this into account. (At this point in the lecture the speaker usually does his ‘Is that your nose?’ number, where he reads aloud some appalling piece of pseudo-dialogue from a bad structure-based course and waits for the laughs.) Of course one can hardly quarrel with the suggestion that classroom language should be as lifelike as possible. All other things being equal, authentic or natural-sounding dialogues are better models than artificial dialogues; it is good to demonstrate structures by using them as they are typically used in the outside world; writing and speaking practice should if possible involve genuine exchanges of information. The more we can (in Widdowson’s eloquent formulation) ‘contrive to make the language we present less of a contrivance’, the better. And this is an area where the Communicative Approach has without question made an important contribution to language teaching. Whatever the defects of the communicative theory oflanguage and syllabus design, the last fifteen years or so have seen enormous improvements in our methodology. None the less, the classroom is not the outside world, and learning language is not the same as using language. A certain amount ofartificiality is inseparable from the process of isolating and focusing on language items for study, and it is a serious mistake to condemn types ofdiscourse typically found in the classroom because they do not share all the communicative features of other kinds of language use. A common target for criticism is the use ofquestions to elicit feedback or to cue practice responses. If you say ‘Is this my book?’ or ‘What am I doing?‘, it is objected that you are asking a question to which you know the Michael Swan answer already; the response will not convey any information, and the conversation is therefore condemned as a piece of pseudo-communication which incidentally gives a misleading picture of how interrogatives are used in English. Now conversations of this kind may not be very interesting, and we may well be able to think of better ways ofgetting the responses we want, but it is not true that no communication is going on. The questions have the communicative value (common in classroom discourse) of eliciting feedback-of asking students to display knowledge of a piece of information; the answers show whether the student does in fact possess the knowledge in question. Students are always perfectly well aware of the illocutionary force of questions and answers in exchanges like these (they have been in classrooms before), and they are in no danger at all of going out of the classroom believing, for instance, that English-speaking people are always asking questions to which they already know the answers. A great deal oflearning takes place in settings which are remote from the situation where the skills or knowledge will ultimately be used. Kittens playing on a living-room carpet are learning aspects of hunting: stalking, hiding, pouncing. biting. reacting at speed. The fact that they are learning these things in the absence of any real-life prey does not seem to detract from the value of the practice that is going on. Again, in many kinds of learning there is an element of ‘mechanical’ repetition that makes the activity at times very different from the goal behaviour that is ultimately envisaged. A boy who takes up the violin may dream of one day playing the Beethoven violin concerto to a packed concert hall. But if he is to realize this aim, he is likely to spend much of his time in the intervening years working alone doing very ‘uncommunicative’ things: playing scales, practising studies, improving his bowing technique, gaining a mastery of positional playing, and so on. Somebody who wants to break the women’s 1.500- metre record will train for a long time before her big race. But comparatively little of her training will involve running the full 1,500-metre distance at racing speed: and a lot of what she does (e.g. interval training, calisthenics) will seem artificial and remote from what she is training to do. Learning a language is not altogether the same thing as learning to play the violin, run races, or catch mice, and analogies can be dangerous. However, it should be clear that effective learning can involve various kinds of ‘distancing’ from the real-life behaviour that is its goal. We do not therefore need to feel that there is anything wrong if, among our battery of teaching activities, we include some (repetition, rote learning, translation, structural drilling) which seem to have no immediate ‘communicative’ value. If all our exercises arc of this kind, of course, it is another matter. Communicative I have suggested that methodology is perhaps the area where the Commupractice and nicative Approach has done most to improve our teaching. It is surprising, ‘information gap’ however, how often ‘communicative’ courses achieve the appearance of communication without the reality. A basic concept in contemporary methodology is that of ‘information gap’. When one student talks to another, we feel that it is important that new information should be transmitted across the ‘gap’ between them. To this end, ingenious exercises are devised in which half the class are provided with data to which the other half do not have access; those who lack the information then have to obtain it by using language in an appropriate way. I do not wish to belittle the value of such exercises; the technique is a powerful one, and (if used intelligently) can generate interesting, lively, and useful work. However, A critical look at the Communicative approach (2) 83 the information conveyed should ideally have some relevance and interest for the students. If (to take a familiar example) I give a student a paper containing the times of trains from Manchester to Liverpool, purely so that he can pass on the information to another student who is not in Manchester and does not wish to go to Liverpool, then we are perhaps still some distance from genuine communication. Perhaps no classroom exercises can completely achieve the spontaneity and naturalness of real exchanges, but there are certainly more realistic and interesting ways oforganizing information-gap work than by working with ‘imposed’ information of this kind. Each individual in a class already possesses a vast private store of knowledge, opinions, and experience; and each individual has an imagination which is capable of creating whole scenarios at a moment’s notice. Student X is probably the only person in the class to know the number of people in his family, the places he has travelled to, what he thinks of a film he has just seen, whether he is shy, whether he believes in God, and what is going on in his head while the class is doing an information-gap exercise. If student X can be persuaded to communicate some of these things to student Y – and this is not very difficult to arrange – then we have a basis for genuinely rich and productive language practice. In many contemporary language courses, communication of this ‘personal’ kind seems to be seriously under-exploited. The tendency to get students to exchange unmotivating, imposed information can even go to the extreme where much of their ‘communication’ is about the behaviour of the fictional characters in their coursebooks (‘You are George – ask Mary what she does at Radio Rhubarb’). Role play and simulation are all very well in their places, but there are times when the same language practice can take place more interestingly and more directly if the students are simply asked to talk about themselves. Authentic materials Like many of the other issues in this field, the question of using authentic materials has become polarized into an opposition between a ‘good’ new approach and a ‘bad’ old approach. Many teachers nowadays probably feel, in a vague kind of way, that there is something basically unsatisfactory, or even wrong, about using scripted dialogues or specially written teaching texts. These are (we have been told) ‘unnatural’, and contrived; they tend to lack the discourse features of genuine text; they are fundamentally noncommunicative (since they were written essentially to present language data rather than to convey information). Often, of course, this is all too true, and the general quality of published EFL dialogues and prose texts is a powerful argument for the increased use ofauthentic materials, whatever problems this may entail. However, it is important not to lose sight of the principles involved. There is nothing wrong in itself with creating special texts for specific purposes, and illustrating language use is a purpose like any other. People use deliberately simplified language when writing for children; when adapting scientific articles for laymen; when creating advertising copy; when writing leading articles in the popular press. Why not, then, when writing for foreign learners3 Ofcourse, we must be careful about quality: the language found in older-style ‘John and Mary’ type dialogues, or in some elementary story-lines, is so far removed from natural English that it does nobody any good. But this is an argument against bad scripted material, not against the use of scripted material in general. In fact, it is obviously desirable to use both scripted and authentic material at different points in a language course for different reasons. Michael Swan Scripted material is useful for presenting specific language items economically and effectively: the course designer has total control over the input, and can provide just the linguistic elements and contextual back-up he or she wishes, no more and no less. Authentic material, on the other hand, gives students a taste of ‘real’ language in use, and provides them with valid linguistic data for their unconscious acquisition processes to work on. Ifstudents are exposed only to scripted material, they will learn an impoverished version of the language, and will find it hard to come to terms with genuine discourse when they are exposed to it. If they are exposed only to authentic material, however, they are unlikely (in the time available for the average language course) to meet all the high-frequency items they need to learn. And elementary students, faced with authentic material that is not very carefully chosen, may find it so difficult that they get bogged down in a morass of unfamiliar lexis and idiom. Eddie Williams, in a recent article, draws attention to ‘the paradox that the use of authentic text with learners often has an effect opposite to that intended; instead ofhelping the learner to read for the meaning of the message, an authentic text at too difficult a level of language forces the reader to focus upon the code’ (Williams 1983). The mother tongue in As far as the British version of the Communicative Approach is concerned, foreign language students might as well not have mother tongues. Meanings, uses, and learning communication skills are treated as if they have to be learnt from scratch. Syllabus design takes no account of the fact that students might already possess some of the knowledge that is tabulated in a needs analysis. (Munby’s Communicative Syllabus Design, for instance (Munby 1978) makes no significant reference to the mother tongue at all.) Communicative methodology stresses the English-only approach to presentation and practice that is such a prominent feature of the British EFL tradition. (Perhaps because this has made it possible for us to teach English all over the world without the disagreeable necessity of having to learn other languages?) This is a peculiar state ofaffairs. It is a matter of common experience that the mother tongue plays an important part in learning a foreign language. Students are always translating into and out of their own languages – and teachers are always telling them not to. Interlanguages notoriously contain errors which are caused by interference from the mother tongue; it is not always realized that a large proportion of the correct features in an interlanguage also contain a mother tongue element. In fact, if we did not keep making correspondences between foreign language items and mother tongue items, we would never learn foreign languages at all. Imagine having to ask whether each new French car one saw was called ‘voiture’, instead of just deciding that the foreign word was used in much the same way as ‘car’ and acting accordingly. Imagine starting to learn German without being able to make any unconscious assumptions about the grammar – for instance, that there are verbs and pronouns with similar meanings to our verbs and pronouns. When we set out to learn a new language, we automatically assume (until we have evidence to the contrary) that meanings and structures are going to be broadly similar to those in our own language. The strategy does not always work, of course – that is why languages are difficult to learn – and it breaks down quite often with languages unrelated to our own. But on balance this kind of ‘equivalence assumption’ puts us ahead of the game; it makes it possible for us to learn a A critical look at the Communicative Approach (2) 85 86 new language without at the same time returning to infancy and learning to categorize the world all over again. If, then, the mother tongue is a central element in the process of learning a foreign language, why is it so conspicuously absent from the theory and methodology of the Communicative Approach? Why is so little attention paid, in this and other respects, to what learners already know? The Communicative Approach seems to have a two-stage approach to needs analysis: 1 find out what the learner needs to know; 2 teach it. A more valid model, in my view, would have four stages: 1 find out what the learner needs to know; 2 find out what he or she knows already; 3 subtract the second from the first; 4 teach the remainder. Conclusion Teachers do not always appreciate how much new approaches owe to speculation and theory, and how little they are based on proven facts. We actually know hardly anything about how languages are learnt, and as a result we are driven to rely, in our teaching, on a pre-scientific mixture of speculation, common sense, and the insights derived from experience. Like eighteenth-century doctors, we work largely by hunch, concealing our ignorance under a screen of pseudo-science and jargon. Speculation, common sense, and experience do not necessarily provide a bad basis to operate on, in the absence ofanything better, and somehow our students do manage to learn languages. However, the lack of a solid empirical ‘anchor’ of established knowledge about language learning makes us very vulnerable to shifts in intellectual fashion. A novel piece of speculation can have an effect out of all proportion to its value, especially since the purveyors of new doctrines are rarely as humble or as tentative as the situation merits. As the theoretical pendulum swings from one extreme to the other, each exaggeration is followed by its opposite. We realize that we have been translating too much, so translation is banned completely. Grammar explanations are seen to have been over-valued, so grammar explanations are swept away. Generation A spends half its time doing structure drills; for generation B, structure drills are anathema. Contrastive studies promise the moon and the stars; when the moon and the stars are slow to arrive, contrastive studies disappear from syllabus design as if they had never been. One approach fails to give sufficient importance to phonetics, or modal verbs, or functions; the next approach does nothing but phonetics, teaches modal verbs for thirty minutes a day, or announces that functions are more important than grammar, vocabulary, and pronunciation put together. Arguments for the current view are invariably highly speculative, extremely plausible, and advanced with tenacious conviction; if one looks back fifteen years, one can see that the arguments for the previous approach (now totally discredited) were equally speculative, just as persuasive, and put forward with the same insistence that ‘this time we’ve got it right’. Each time this happens, the poor language teacher is told to junk a large part of his or her repertoire ofmaterials, activities, and methods (because these are no longer scientific) and to replace them by a gleaming new battery of up-to-date apparatus and techniques. The students, as a rule, learn about as much as before. Michael Swan It is characteristic of the Communicative Approach to assess utterances not so much on the basis of their propositional meaning as in terms of their pragmatic value. We should perhaps apply this criterion to the Communicative Approach itself. As with a religion, it may be more sensible to ask, not ‘Is it true?‘, but ‘What good does it do?’ This is not a difficult question to answer. The Communicative Approach has directed our attention to the importance of other aspects of language besides propositional meaning, and helped us to analyse and teach the language of interaction. At the same time, it has encouraged a methodology which relies less on mechanical teacher-centered practice and more on the simulation of real-life exchanges. All this is very valuable, and even if (as with religions) there is a good deal of confusion on the theoretical side, it is difficult not to feel that we are teaching better than we used to. By and large, we have probably gained more than we have lost from the Communicative Approach. In the same way, we shall probably benefit from the next language teaching revolution, especially if we can keep our heads, recognize dogma for what it is, and try out the new techniques without giving up useful older methods simply because they have been ‘proved wrong’. (The characteristic sound of a new breakthrough in language teaching theory is a scream, a splash, and a strangled cry, as once again the baby is thrown out with the bathwater.) Above all, we must try not to expect too much. New insights can certainly help us to teach more systematically and effectively, but it is probably an illusion to expect any really striking progress in language teaching until we know a great deal more about how foreign languages are learnt. For the moment, talk of ‘revolution’ simply does the profession a disservice, raising hopes that cannot be fulfilled, and soliciting an investment of time and money which is out of all proportion to the return which can realistically be expected from the new methods. (It is a shock to realize that, after more than ten very expensive years of ‘communicative’ teaching, we cannot prove that a single student has a more effective command of English than if he or she had learnt the language by different methods twenty years earlier. Our research depends to an uncomfortable degree on faith.) The Communicative Approach, whatever its virtues, is not really in any sense a revolution. In retrospect, it is likely to be seen as little more than an interesting ripple on the surface of twentieth-century language teaching. Received June 1984 Notes 1 The examination leading to the Royal Society of Arts Diploma in TEFL. References Brumfit, C. J. 1978. Review of D. A. Wilkins’s Notional Syllabuses. ELT Journal XXXIII/1:79-82. Candlin, E. F. 1968. Present Day English for Foreign Students. Fourth edition. London: University of London Press. Jerome, J. K. 1900. Three Men on the Bummel. O’Neill, R. 1977. ‘The limits of functional/notional syllabuses – or “My guinea pig died with its legs crossed” ’ in S. Holden (ed.) English for Specific Purposes. London: Modern English Publications. Swan, M. 1985. ‘A critical look at the Communicative Approach (l).’ ELT Journal 39/1:2-12. Williams, E. 1983. ‘Communicative reading’ in K. Johnson and D. Porter (eds.). Perspectives in Communicative Language Teaching. London: Academic Press. The


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