The notion of speaking practice has long been recognised as having important place in language teaching.
In this article we should like to examine some common forms of such practice within the framework of a communication-oriented course design.
To this end, we shall examine:
Supporting analyses of classroom interaction will be presented in arguing
that this form of practice provides a more appropriate framework for foreign
language acquisition to take place.
The notion of communicative language teaching
The notion of <communication> or <communicative competence> (cf. Hymes, 1971, 1972) in language teaching has taken many forms, since it first became a central preoccupation of language course design.
In a communicative approach, the purely linguistic elements are no longer seen as the ONLY elements to be mastered. Rather, it becomes a question of developing studentsí awarenesses of the various systems operating in synchrony in order to bring about successful communication in the foreign language being learnt. Recognition of this was seen as a great step forward in language teaching methodology.
Many actual courses, however, despite their claim to develop communicative competence, remain resolutely grammatical.
Others, despite a stated commitment to communicative objectives fail to bring together the various necessary <communicative> components.
We should suggest that such failures occur not so much through a lack of good will on the part of course designers or through ignorance of the parameters of communication but:
(b) through inertia due to force of habit.
Fundamental to the view of communicative competence is that language usage us a purposeful activity. This means that language is used to achieve goals stemming from a genuine need or internal motivation of the speaker. In turn, this is a product of the interaction between the speakers and their environment.
Within a communicative framework, indeed even where such a framework
is not explicitly recognised, the need has long been felt for providing
a space for practising speaking skills. This is often the role attributed
to what has come to be known as the <conversation> class.
The conversation class
The conversation class takes different forms according to the way in which it is supposed to fit in with the rest of the study programme.
One of its most common forms is based on the study of an authentic or pedagogic text. A (hopefully) controversial or motivating idea emerges or is extracted from the texts and serves as a basis for discussion.
Ostensibly, it is this discussion (the conversation) which is the <raison-díêtre> of the class. More often than not however, the real purpose if the exercise is to attempt to coax students to reutilise the vocabulary and grammatical structures encountered in the analysis of the document. The practice of communication as such seems to take a back seat to vocabulary, syntax and sometimes pronunciation: the stuff that <real> language learning is supposedly all about.
Under these conditions, the practice of the <conversation> class is open to several criticisms.
(b) The repertoire of <motivating> themes is often so hackneyed that it produces a cynical rather than an interested response from the students. e.g. <Oh gosh!, not another discussion on drugs!>
(c) Imagine if a group of people met and all said at the same time (in their own language): <O.K. it's talking time. Let's talk!> It is predictable that they would have little or nothing to say. This is simply not the way in which conversation occurs and operates in real life where, according to Grice, conversations are both relevant and informative (Grice, 1975, pp. 45-46).
(d) Conversation is one of the important events around which relationships revolve and take shape. In many cases, it is these relationships and not the subject under discussion which matter and which will have been altered in some way as a result if the exchange. The subject of the conversation often, though not always, matters less than the relationships between the participants.
Real interaction, on the other hand, has a purpose or goal which organises
contributions by participants. It is this goal which governs their involvement
and guarantees the illocutionary force of their utterances. If there is
no goal to strive for, the <conversation> is often reduced to a series
if declarative statements lacking in illocutionary force (for the participants
already know that their statements are essentially <empty>). Such statements
are often independent of each other and could more appropriately be described
as components of parallel monologues rather than dialogues.
Role play and short-term simulation
In an attempt to deal with some of the difficulties raised above, techniques for role play and short-terms simulation have been developed. The aim of these is to allow the practised interaction to be structured more realistically and effectively by establishing contextualised goals to be reached by the participants (e.g. buying stamps, sending telegrams, selling a car or renting an apartment) and by establishing certain constraints.
Learners are provided with more or less precise indications of who they are, who their interlocutors are, what their task is etc. They are then asked to act out the roles which are required in order to complete that task.
Here are two examples of instructions for a role play. They will serve to illustrate the range of possible instructions and therefore constraints.
(b) <You are a twenty -year old Australian tourist in New Caledonia. It is 10.55 a.m. and the shops are about to close. You are hungry. You need to buy 500 grams of chocolate biscuits. The shopkeeper is middle-aged French man. You do not know each other. He is obviously in a bad mood. He can tell that you are a tourist. How do you go about obtaining what you need?>
In short, these techniques are a significant improvement on the conversation
class but they still share many of its problems.
Toward a better form of communicative practice
As pointed out above, the problem of the studentsí self-investment in their own learning us of central importance in any language programme and poses teachers with considerable difficulties.
We believe that one way of promoting self-investment and, at the same
time autonomy, is to encourage students to accept substantial responsibility
for their own learning. However, this is not without its problems and will
often require a profound reappraisal of the teacherís pedagogic practice
as well as the studentsí own views of what language learning is all about.
Some of these difficulties will now be examined.
The teacherís traditional role in interaction/conversation
Studies of interaction within learning situations tend to agree that the amount of time which teachers spend speaking is far too high and often greater than that of any single learner. At times it is even greater than the speaking time of all the learners out together (e.g. McCarthy, 1983). Thus the teacher continues to occupy the most important role in the conversation practice and deprive students of valuable practice time while claiming to be providing them with the opportunity to practise their speaking skills.
This is exacerbated by the fact that teachers have a privileged status compared to learners. For instance, they do not have to express their points of view in the way that students are expected to do. Also, because they are the holders of all knowledge, ultimate power etc. their <contributions> to the conversation class also have a special status.
Further, an examination of turn-taking reveals that it is often the teacher who distributes <turns> i.e. who decides who will speak next and what this contribution will be about (for a discussion on turn-taking, cf, Coulthard, 1977, pp. 55-62).
This central function, instead of being determined by the interplay between the role relationships within the communicative events, is determined in fact by the authority vested in the teacher by virtue of his/her role outside the communicative event. Thus the studentsí attention is being continually drawn ti the fact that they are in some sense <inferior> and also that they are operating in a learning (i.e. abnormal) environment thus eradicating any remaining vestige of naturalness which might otherwise have emerged. Over the centuries, this model has become so firmly entrenched in our pedagogic practice that generations of students have been brought up to expect to be told what to do at every moment of a course.
Another important function taken over by the teacher is that if ensuring that what each speaker has said is <really> what s/he wanted to say. This further deprives the learner of a considerable amount of responsibility and practice in learning how to negotiate a <working agreement> with respect to the direction to be taken by any interaction. After all, at the end of the day the teacher is always there to correct any problems which might appear.
Moreover, the fact that the teacher is constantly checking the studentsí statements, reformulating and clarifying what they are trying to say is a way of constantly passing judgment (or appearing to pass judgment). Thus rather than the classroom being a non-threatening environment in which students can experiment freely (a real language laboratory), it runs the risk of becoming the place where studentsí inadequacies are constantly made public.
These kinds of teacher behaviours tend to deny the existence of the individual and his/her learning idiosyncrasies inasmuch as judgments are constantly made on behalf of students as to what is easy, difficult, interesting, motivating, important or useful.
There exists a further risk: that if focusing too heavily on the linguistic elements if communication rather than on the coordination of the various communicative systems (the linguistic systems only being a part of these).
Far from being the load-lighteners which they are intended to be, these procedures tend to isolate and insulate students from certain communicative problems which they may never be able to solve either through a lack of any knowledge of their existence and/or through a lack of experience in solving them at a personal level.
In effect, a kind of hypocrisy is being perpetrated whereby learners are asked ostensibly to function at the level of the real world whereas the teacher chooses to operate in a different world.
The above problems all contribute to trapping learners in an armour of silence and there is often a considerable delay between the moment when they wish to make an utterance and the moment at which such an utterance is ready to be produced. When the utterance is finally ready it is often no longer appropriate to the <conversation> and, as a result, no utterance is produced at all. The instantaneous response required by the real world interaction is lacking.
In addition to these difficulties, the cooperative principle mentioned
earlier is often threatened (especially in conversation classes) as it
is the teacher, rather than the learners, who carries the responsibility
for the success or failure of the conversation, who interrupts those who
digress and brings them back to the <subject at hand> (which somehow
has a highly privileged status) e.g.:
The outcome if such an exercise is that instead of having an interaction which approximates natural language conversation i.e. at very least a succession of statements followed by relevant replies (Goffman, 1981, p. 13) it is most often the case that what is produced is a series of statements and only rarely any replies. Rather than making a personal and pertinent contribution to a débat whose outcome will be real inasmuch as it will affect the speakers and the situation around them, statements are made in response to the unspoken rule that one has to talk at any price e.g.:
- Peter: Well, I think that ...
- Teacher: Good! So, in essence you agree that both Andrew and Christine have a point. Now Muriel, you havenít said anything, what do you think of this> Do you think <X>?
- Muriel: Yes.
Although in many ways the classical <conversation class> model is
likely to be relatively safe though probably boring, students have to be
helped to develop the sorts of risk-taking skills without which they are
unlikely to be able to deal with the unpredicted and unpredictable problems
likely to face them when operating in the real world. Because in the classical
<conversation class> and in some role play models teacher is holder
of all knowledge and, potentially, the solver of all problems, students
often feel that they can turn to him/her for support help and explanations:
thus justifying to themselves their own passivity through a denial of their
own potential to solve problems. Help is always there and self-reliance
is reduced considerably2.
The teacher-learner relationship
Traditionally, the teacher-learner relationship seems to be predicted on a continuing power struggle based on the teacherís authority and on the studentsí opposition to this authority. e.g. <Please don't give us any homework this week, weíll work twice as hard next week.>
It seems desirable to change the teacher-learner relationship in the following ways:
(b) By bringing about a change in the teachersí attitudes as they ought no longer to be the focus of attention. The teacherís task would now become one of providing sympathetic assistance and support. Their first priority would be to assist students to determine their needs (which are not necessarily those of more traditional models) as well as a realistic self-assessment of their abilities.
(c) Students, on the other hand, should be encouraged to break away from their total reliance on teachers and learn to focus their learning capacities upon themselves thus taking a giant step toward autonomy.
Toward a different learning framework
The observations made above provide us with a basis for defining a set of desirable characteristics if a practice of communicative interaction is not to remain an end in itself but, rather, an activity in which self-investment by foreign language learners is high. We would wish to create a situation in which students are fundamentally responsible for the outcomes of the interaction and therefore depend on it. In the first instance, this implies that any communicative interaction should no longer be seen as a discrete, self-fulfilling linguistic exercise but that any linguistic production should be only part of a considerably larger interaction between the participants and their environment.
Such a view brings into play a new temporal dimension for it implies a succession or chain of communicative events: a form of continuity, effectively the creation of history, a past. Each linguistic or communicative interaction therefore becomes a link in a chain of complex events and has a dependency relationship with other links in the chain: it is a part of a system.
Each interaction therefore serves to modify its parameters and the participantsí
roles. Reciprocally, the relation between each of these elements is structured
by the constraints springing from each interaction and which control those
which follow. Thus, for an event <E>, person <A> and person <B>
can choose to act (or not to act) in manner <X> or manner <Y> thus
modifying their environment in some way. The resulting state is now defined
by the new constraints springing from Aís and Bís actions and is no longer
controlled by events outside the situation over which students have little
or no control. Effectively, the activity now springs from within the interacting
group as a result of individualsí activities. The nett result of this is
the <fading out> (a kind of mise à líécart) of the teacher
for the duration of the communicative practice. It can no longer be the
teacher who decides and controls activities and outcomes but activities
and outcomes are negotiated by the participants in much the same way as
in everyday life.
Ongoing self-managed macrosimulation
In order to provide the kind of framework described above while, at the same time, making allowances for individualising the learning process we suggest a framework which we have called <ongoing self-managed macrosimulation>. Broadly speaking, this is a learning structure which should display the following sorts of characteristics:
For instance, the students might be placed in a simulated village, i.e. a geographical, economic, cultural setting in the country whose language is being learned. In turn, this will necessarily define roles, potential conflicts, problems,
The term <ongoing> implies that the macrosimulation (or extended simulation) will last for a considerable amount of time and incorporates the notion of <real-time>. Further, it means that the simulation is, theoretically, eternal. Their is no pre-determined end for the simulation. All these things mean that it is not intended to compress events in time for the sake if fitting them into a period of set length, e.g. a fifty-minutes class. Rather, the event(s) would be given time to exist according to whatever length of time might actually be required in real life e.g. an election campaign may well last several weeks and not just a few minutes.
The concept of self-management is now introduced in order to make it clear that it is the learners and not the teachers who are essentially responsible for any activity thus allowing for proper development of the simulation. Tasks emerge from the sequence of interactions resulting in a snow-balling effect. The process is therefore dynamic.
Important consequences of the establishment of such a learning framework include:
(b) There is no pre-defined course programme but there are course objectives which emerge as the course develops.
(c) Tasks are negotiated progressively between the participants themselves in the first instance and, only if absolutely necessary, in collaboration with the teacher. These relate to the issue of the place, the identities and the political, economical and social relationships between the individuals, urgent issues which community thus established will need to resolve, all of which, in turn, will determine the course of events which will follow. The process of organising such a community may require also an extensive exploration of those aspects which make up the communities which the learners hope to establish themselves.
(d) It is assumed that every learner is capable of making a valuable contribution to the simulation in some form or other. This contribution may not always be linguistic but may relate to specialised knowledge from real life.
An experimental course in French
The following is a description of an attempt to implements the principles described above. This attempt was made over two semesters in the Department of French at the University of Queensland, Australia, in a course designed for students with several years of high school study of French4.
A few initial constraints were suggested by the teacher and agreed to by the students. These included: an agreement to take part in the simulation5, agreement that participants would <live> in a French village; the definition by each student of the person that s/he would be (including character traits, physical traits, profession, etc.); the acceptance by each student of a partial responsibility for running the simulation and the village. (Each student was automatically a member of the town council.) Finally, but most importantly, both students and teacher agreed explicitly to do all that was necessary to keep the simulation alive.
All other constraints emerged from the previous ones. After a relatively short time, the simulation attained its independence i.e. activities were continually generated from one another.
Below are a few examples of constraints taken from the <city council>
(ii) Next come the <specialist> councilors who have a good knowledge of their field of specialisation and who are more competent than others with respect to any particular problem as a result of their roles, work, hobby and also their rel selves. Naturally, this hierarchy will change as the demands made of council change.
(c) Decisions must be made by the city council according to the characteristics of the village and the conditions in existence at any one time.
This input phase (one of several) allows students to become acquainted with the various kinds of discourse which they decided to produce or deal with e.g. newspaper articles, petitions, election speeches, public opinion polls.
Partial analysis of a macrosimulation
The following analysis will attempt to demonstrate the diversity, intensity and richness of language activity as well as the high level of psychological involvement or self-investment created by a macrosimulation environment.
We hope that it will help to demonstrate that it may be possible to go some way toward creating , in the classroom, an environment meeting Griceís criteria of relevance and <newsworthiness>. Naturally, this environment is not suggested as the only possible realisation of such a model but only as one possibility amongst others.
The short segment which served as the basis for our analysis consists of approximately five and half minutes of a discussion occurring during a meeting of the town council in FR132 and is typical of such discussions (cf. Appendix A for a transcript).
The business of the meeting is the consequence of a number of several events but has been triggered directly by a letter sent by one of the characters, Madame Rosalie, to thee mayor of the village (cf. Appendix B). (In this letter she requests the establishment of a club for <women who want to be women>. The item is centred in the Councilís agenda under the heading of <Correspondance> (cf. Appendix C). As Madame Rosalie is also a member of the town council, she necessarily occupies a central role.
It seems important to note:
(d) A range of activities is or has already been required by councilors. For instance, Madame Rosalie has written a letter; the councilors must have read and understood it. On the aural/oral side they are required to understand and react to the situation in unpredicted and unpredictable ways.
(b) The level of interruptions and interjections us relatively high. People are trying to <have the floor>, to take over. They are keen to take the risk of speaking rather than trying to avoid speaking as is often the case in regular conversation class.
(c) The level of sentence-completion by persons other than the speaker is also high, indicating a low tolerance of silence (Coulthard, 1977, p. 56), and is another sign of the phenomenon examined in b) above. Perhaps paradoxically, it is also a sign of mutual support by members of the group.
This self-reliance is further enhanced through the protection provided by the very roles which they have adopted. Instead, it would seem that in many cases students can distance themselves from their roles. In the eyes of many learners it is the role person and not the real self who makes errors and cannot perform tasks. This is further reinforced in the fact that students often refer to their roles as <he> or <she>.
(e) A broad range of intonation patterns is used. The discussion is not made up of a series if statements, and a number if participants seem genuinely concerned.
(f) The intensity of voices is constantly changing, ranging from mumbled/whispered utterances to loud cries of derision.
(h) There is much variation in the language functions used and at least the following are found in the 5 ½ minutes analysed: i) expressing disapproval (17 different relalisations); ii) enquiring (12); iii) introducing a subject (6); iv) explaining intention (4); v) expressing certainty (3); vi) expressing obligation (2); vii) expressing indispensability (1).
Our experiments appear to have allowed us to create a framework which resembles more closely that of natural interaction, so that communication skills may be acquired in a near-normal and non-threatening environment. This is due largely to the ongoing construction of a collective past and present. This framework then provides the opportunity for self-investment through goal-directed communicative interaction which shapes the participantsí future both individually and as a group. This is very different from the average conversation class.
Because of this, the framework gives rise to a broad and rich range of activities involving not only the speaking and listening skills but reading, writing and other communicative skills as well (often not the case in conversation) classes). It also gives rise to opportunities for individualising the learning experience and for the development of students autonomy within a non-threatening environment.
Some years ago, in an article describing the goals of SGAV methodology, Paul Rivenc stated:
<Notre but est de permettre à líélève ou à líétudiant de briser le plus rapidement possible l'étau de ses inhibitions, de se désengluer des réflexes psychomoteurs de sa langue maternelle pour oser síexprimer à travers un comportement linguistique, gestuel et mimique, étranger à ses modes díexpression habituels.>7 (Rivenc, 1976, p. 74)
We hope that the research reported in this article has made some contribution towards the realisation of this ideal.
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